Now that Cindy Sheehan, the “Peace Mom” has gone back to her own mom, who has had a stroke, it seems a good time to reflect on what she means to the media. Obviously there’s a great story there if they can make the case that this ordinary mom from California who claims she just wants to meet with President Bush has created a “peace movement” where there wasn’t one before. Ron Fournier of the Associated Press writes that “What began as one mother’s vigil on a country road in Texas two weeks ago has grown into a nationwide protest, putting a grieving human face to the miseries of war and the misgivings about President Bush’s strategies in Iraq.” Charles Gibson of “Good Morning America” says that “all across the country protests against the war in Iraq, inspired by the mother standing her ground at President Bush’s ranch. But is anyone in the White House feeling the heat?”
Likewise, Wyatt Andrews of CBS says that “Cindy Sheehan has tapped the public’s frustration,” while Geoff Morrell of ABC says that “Cindy Sheehan is re-energizing the anti-war movement.” But of course all these reporters know perfectly well that Cindy Sheehan didn’t “inspire” or “re-energize” anything. There has been a left-wing anti-war movement since before the war even began, and it is now doing its utmost to batten on to Mrs. Sheehan in order to create the impression that it amounts to a grass-roots movement — an impression that the media are only too eager to promote. Moreover, they pretend to believe that Bush is making a big mistake by not meeting with her. I say “pretend” because they couldn’t possibly believe this unless they also believe that a meeting with the President is what Cindy Sheehan really wants; and to believe that, they would have to be idiots.
I know, I know. Media idiocy is not exactly unheard of. One commentator who appears pretty slow on the uptake is Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post who writes that Mrs. Sheehan’s “vigil risks becoming political theater disconnected from its larger purpose.” Uh, Jim, what larger purpose would that be? Well, let’s see. “A vigil by a war victim’s mother should be an act of devotion that transcends political theater,” he writes, indulging himself in the magisterial editorial should. “Bush owes Sheehan the respect of the meeting she seeks — if she demonstrates that she will show him the respect any elected president deserves.” You mean like calling him just a liar instead of a liar and a war criminal? Almost as idiotic is George Stephanopoulos. He not only says that Bush is making a mistake, he pretends to believe that Republicans privately believe Bush is making a mistake. Newsflash, George. They don’t.
But if Mrs. Sheehan really believes that Bush is a liar and a war criminal, why does she want to talk to him? So that he can explain to her why he’s not a liar and a war criminal. Maybe then she’ll pipe down and “show him the respect any elected president deserves,” in Mr. Hoagland’s formulation. But does anyone seriously suppose that there’s anything the President could say which would persuade her of his good faith when she has so loudly insisted to all the world that it doesn’t exist? Does she seriously believe, any more than her sponsors in MoveOn.org, that even if he did meet with her, and even if she hadn’t already poisoned the wells of any potential dialogue, that she has any chance of persuading Bush to abandon Israel and his oil baron buddies to pull out of Iraq? No, Jim Hoagland, becoming political theater is the larger purpose behind her demonstration.
And what’s showing is what’s always showing in our contemporary American political theatre, namely the psychodrama of authenticity. My favorite bit of the week’s histrionics comes from Newsweek:
Privately, Bush has met with about 900 family members of some 270 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. The conversations are closed to the press, and Bush does not like to talk about what goes on in these grieving sessions, though there have been hints. An hour after he met with the families at Fort Bragg in June, he gave a hard-line speech on national TV. When he mentioned the sacrifice of military families, his lips visibly quivered….Family members interviewed by Newsweek say they have been taken aback by the president’s emotionalism and his sincerity. More complicated is the question of whether Bush’s suffering is essentially sympathetic, or whether he is agonizing over the war that he chose to start.
And what would be the difference between these two things? Why would the President’s “suffering,” that is, not be “essentially sympathetic” if he were “agonizing over the war that he chose to start”? Wouldn’t, in that case, the “agonizing” have sprung from the sympathy? Or does Newsweek imagine that Bush is “agonizing” only because of the mistake he made in going to war and its political cost to himself and that it is just coincidental that this happens only after he has met with grieving family members?
I’m trying to make sense of the question, but I don’t think it makes any sense. What Newsweek is really asking, I think, is whether Bush’s suffering is sincere. Or sincere enough. But that for some reason is a question the media by and large don’t yet permit themselves to ask — just as they don’t permit themselves to engage in Mrs. Sheehan’s wilder charges of criminal behavior on the President’s part, or even to reflect on the relevance of them to her request for a meeting. They may believe similar things themselves, but they don’t say them because to do so would too obviously blow their cover. That’s why they are reduced to asking absurd questions such as this about what Bush is agonizing about while upholding the absurd pretense that the Peace Mom really just wants a chat with him. They’ve got to cloak their hostility to Bush by such means but don’t seem to realize that most people aren’t fooled for a minute.
—James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie critic.