A word from--and about--Cindy Sheehan

class=img_thumbleft>One of the stranger facets of modern reporting is the advent of the media teleconference. A press release shows up in a reporter's e-mail inbox, usually putting forth an expert on an issue of the day. There's a 1-800 number to call at a designated time, with a password to gain access to the "press conference," and the dutiful reporter skims the release and promptly deletes it.

But when the name of the available source is Cindy Sheehan, the dutiful reporter calls the number, gives his name and the name of his dutiful news organization to an operator, and starts tapping his fingers along to some 10 minutes of hold music. Eventually a moderator comes on the line, and introduces the main source and a couple others--in this case, Sheehan calling in from Crawford, a war widow, and a veteran of Iraq.

It's a strange world, one that affords a certain amount of anonymity and imagination, since there's no visual connection. And, in the case of Cindy Sheehan, Tuesday's teleconference allowed the dutiful reporter to observe closely what is (or isn't) going on inside the head of America's latest headline maker.

The cell phone connection was pretty lousy, and Sheehan dropped off the line a number of times. That didn't stop a bevy of reporters--from the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Salon.com, The Los Angeles Times, CNN and the like--from lining up in a little tele-queue to throw some questions at Sheehan. (The dutiful reporter from the local news and arts rag did not get in line.)

But first, there was the opening statement from Sheehan that was not much of a statement at all. "Can you hear me guys?" she asked, and it garbled. All that was clear was that Sheehan used the word "overwhelmed" three times before concluding: "I'm just overwhelmed with emotion right now. That's my statement."

For whatever's been said about Cindy Sheehan--activist, opportunist, patriot, traitor--it needs to be said more often and more clearly that she is, at her core, a grieving mother. One who, understandably, doesn't sound to be in very good shape. At times during the teleconference, she would spew out train-of-thought recollections of her dead son, with more melancholy than bitterness. This is to be expected from a parent who has lost a child. What is not to be expected is that the parent suddenly becomes a political symbol for one side or the other during war time.

Sheehan is, at least superfically, aware of this. She repeatedly said that her particular cause was "apolitical," wondering at one point who could possibly be opposed to candlelight vigils and "memorials for fallen heroes."

But she also recounted some rather political talking points. "There's a peaceful paradigm in this country," she said at another point. "The president says he wants to spread peace, and I've got news for him. You don't spread peace by killing people."

So is she political or not? Sheehan herself doesn't seem to know anymore. A reporter from the Dallas Observer sensed this, asking, "Is it easier for [the right] to marginalize you as left-leaning activists affix themselves to you?"

Sheehan responded that her point was to "focus on the message" before again expressing bewilderment that people could take issue with a candlelight vigil. She nevertheless concluded by saying, "I'm a democrat, I'm a liberal." (Small "d"? Capital "D"? You decide.)

None of this would be notable is it weren't for the fact that Sheehan is not just unpolished--many great leaders and change agents have been, if we count Sheehan as one, which we shouldn't--but quite possibly someone who shouldn't have thrust herself into such a polarizing spotlight.

"The scrutiny against me, I'm willing to take it," the 48-year-old said in response to questions about her not paying taxes and her husband recently filing for divorce, before adding in the same breath: "I don't have a thick skin, I'm very sensitive, and I don't take it very well."

For further contradiction, Sheehan had just said, minutes earlier, that the right-wing attacks on her were "despicable." "They already took my son from me, there's not much else they can do," Sheehan said. "Why are they smearing me? I'm not running for office, I'm a mother with a broken heart."

I recently spoke with an acquaintaince who had just lost her child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The topic was nominally about Sheehan, but also about this person's own grieving process. She said that most of "the many, many crazy things" she's done and said since the tragedy had to do with trying to go back in time, out of denial and delusion, and recreate her child's life before death. Even if parts of the recreation never happened while her child was alive.

It is, the acquaintance concluded, natural, but not necessarily helpful in the long term. She wondered if the scene in Crawford was allowing Sheehan to continue doing similar things with Casey.

This theory played out during the teleconference in the form of Sheehan's bizarre bitterness for her son's recruiter. Casey had enlisted and re-enlisted, she barely acknowledged, but mostly because his recruiter had lied to him. The recruiter promised Casey a $20,000 signing bonus, but it amounted to $4,500, Sheehan said. The recruiter, who she did not name, told Casey he could finish college--but he never took a class. Casey, Cindy claimed, wanted to be a Chaplain's assistant, but was told he could be a Humvee mechanic or a cook.

"We could have babies and grandchildren, and Casey could be teaching elementary school," Sheehan blurted, "if his recruiter hadn't lied."

And maybe this is all true. But maybe it's at this point that we should all tune out the "controversy" surrounding Cindy Sheehan and think about that last comment. Whether she's "aware" "politically" of what she is doing, it's probably not clear to her at all exactly what she is doing--that is, grieving very publicly, in a way that no one finds particularly unsavory. But we should find it squeamish, and we should consider the possiblity of distasteful voyeurism here.

Toward the end of the teleconference, Sheehan chastised the reporters who had listened to this over the phone for more than an hour. We had, she said, missed out on the big story, about how the U.S. invasion of Iraq was predicated not just on lies to the American public, but also to those who served.

The "Peace Movement" has been "overwhelming," she pointed out, but unfairly ignored, saying that war prostestors "have been doing the media's job," whatever that is.

Sheehan continued, "We have been a low priority because of Scott Peterson, Terri Schiavo and Michael Jackson," before her voice trailed off. Maybe it's because she realized the next name in that succession was her own.

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