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Did the Cindy Sheehan vigil succeed?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2005



WASHINGTON

Cindy Sheehan's month of fame - or infamy, depending on one's vantage point - is drawing to a close. The grieving mother of a US soldier slain in Iraq will end her vigil at the president's ranch on Wednesday, almost certainly having failed in her stated goal of a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Bush.

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If nothing else, the spectacle she launched added an American point of focus to the larger tableau of bad news for the US effort in Iraq, dominated by a US military death toll approaching the symbolically significant 2,000-person mark, and faltering Iraqi efforts to draft a broadly acceptable constitution. For Bush, there's bad political news as well: a Gallup poll, released last Friday, showing the lowest job-approval rating (40 percent) of his presidency. Even among Republicans, support for Bush has hit an all-time low - albeit a still-high 82 percent. But overall, only 34 percent of Americans are satisfied with how things are going in this country, another low for Bush's 4-1/2 years in office, Gallup reports.

Ms. Sheehan's role in Bush's sagging numbers remains a matter of conjecture; skyrocketing gasoline prices cannot have helped. But Sheehan's galvanizing effect on both opponents and supporters of the Iraq war is beyond doubt, analysts say. Whether her vigil will prove to have been an irreversible turning point in antiwar efforts - and whether that movement can develop in a way that speaks broadly to many Americans, not just the fringes - probably depends on what happens in coming months.

To some observers, the Aug. 17 candlelight vigils organized by Moveon.org in some 1,600 cities to support Sheehan represented a new level of public engagement among those critical of the Iraq war.

"The vigils were something we hadn't seen in quite some time. It was a turning point, I think," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, noting large turnouts in cities like Salt Lake City, not just Democratic strongholds. "Something was afoot in its mainstreamness."

But, Professor Gitlin adds, as a turning point, "it's reversible." Sheehan could lose the initiative, as other candidates for antiwar spokesman jockey for the limelight. Media imagery will be crucial. An important test of the future will come in September, when the nation's capital plays host to what is evolving into dueling rallies.

First, on Sept. 11, the Pentagon is sponsoring an event called the Freedom Walk, to honor the victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks and show support for the US military with a walk from the Pentagon to the Mall. Organizers hope to create a national movement in future years, with walks around the country to commemorate 9/11. Critics see the event as an attempt to boost support for the Iraq war. Recently, the Washington Post withdrew its co-sponsorship of the event, citing the potential that it could become politicized.

Then, from Sept. 24 to 26, antiwar groups are organizing three days of events here in Washington, starting with a march and rally and culminating in what their website calls "mass nonviolent direction action and civil disobedience." Immediate withdrawal from Iraq is just one part of the agenda, which includes a call for "global justice" and protection of immigrants' rights and basic civil rights.

Whether the Sept. 24-26 rally attracts a large mainstream turnout could have a dramatic impact on the future of antiwar activism - and how politicians of both parties respond. A central demand of the protest - immediate US withdrawal from Iraq - does not reflect the majority view of Americans, analysts note. Polls show about one-third of Americans hold that position.

For now, though, the two rallies have become focal points for Iraq war supporters and opponents, almost as a self-imposed litmus test for which side has the more popular position. The battle appears to be almost an extension of the dueling rallies held outside the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch on Saturday - a reflection of how the Sheehan vigil has also galvanized supporters of the Iraq war.

The future role of Sheehan herself in the antiwar movement appears to be at a crossroad. On Friday she said she would take part in the first two days of a national antiwar bus tour, but then leave to fulfill prior speaking engagements.

"She has to be careful that she doesn't become her own road show, in which she becomes someone who goes around the country as an extraordinary person, in some ways," says Alexander Bloom, a professor at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., who specializes in the history of antiwar protests.

But, say activists sympathetic to her cause, the bottom line is that Sheehan succeeded in personalizing opposition to the war.

"Her reality was, so to speak, a crowbar to open the lid on what had been sealed, which is the human dimension," says Norman Solomon, executive director of the liberal Institute for Public Accuracy. "The media and politics don't engage with death very well. And Bush has been effective until this summer at keeping US victims of this war in a hazy middle distance, close enough to exploit as a photo-op prop but not up close and personal enough to begin to deal with the grief of war."

Regardless of the fact that Sheehan did not get a face-to-face audience with Bush, she clearly got his attention. At his speech to a National Guard audience in Idaho on Wednesday, Bush singled out the mother of five sons, all of whom - in addition to her husband - are either serving in Iraq or have returned. She presented a pointed antidote to the mother from Vacaville, Calif., who filled space in the annual August media void in Crawford, Texas, and gave the president's vacation a bit more of a plot line than usual.

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