CRAWFORD, Texas — For more than a year, a modest bungalow known as "Peace House," located a few miles from President Bush's ranch, has served as a headquarters for antiwar activists. It is lonely work, with little more than a skeleton crew on hand much of the time.
But then Cindy Sheehan hit town.
The 48-year-old mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in an ambush in Baghdad last year, is consumed by the kind of grief that turns into a furious determination to do something -- in her case, to confront the president and force him to explain why her son died.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Cindy Sheehan -- An article in Thursday's Section A about war protester Cindy Sheehan said conservative blogger Michelle Malkin had called activists supporting Sheehan "grief pimps." Malkin's blog carried the headline "The Grief Pimps," but it referred to a posting from one of her readers.
Now, in the space of just a few days, what started out as a seemingly quixotic personal mission has become something of a phenomenon -- with media swarming around Sheehan, leading liberal and antiwar activists parachuting in to try to make her their long-sought voice, and political experts in both parties working to assess what role she may have in galvanizing the public's gathering unhappiness with the increasing American casualties in Iraq.
Antiwar leaders hope that putting the spotlight on Sheehan will motivate Americans who oppose the war, creating a political force strong enough to compel the Bush administration to change course.
MoveOn.org and other liberal groups have rushed to provide support, offering media expertise and attempting to assemble a corps of others who have lost relatives in Iraq or have family members serving there.
Liberal voices have swung into action on the Internet as well. On Wednesday, Democratic media consultant Joe Trippi organized a conference call with Sheehan for bloggers, aiming to garner more publicity. By Wednesday afternoon, "Cindy Sheehan" was the top-ranked search term on Technorati.com, the search engine for blog postings.
The White House, meanwhile, has sought to cope with Sheehan's vigil without abandoning its strategy for dealing with the families of troops who have died. On a number of occasions, Bush has met with bereaved relatives -- including some who have challenged him sharply on the war -- but he has done so privately, away from news cameras and reporters.
Sheehan, a Vacaville, Calif., resident who opposed the war even before her son's death, was a member of one such group in June 2004. She came away from that meeting dissatisfied and angry.
"We wanted [the president] to look at pictures of Casey, we wanted him to hear stories about Casey, and he wouldn't. He changed the subject every time we tried," Sheehan said. "He wouldn't say Casey's name, called him: 'your loved one.' "
Sheehan, a co-founder of the antiwar group Gold Star Families for Peace, has said she would remain in Crawford until she got to see Bush face to face.
Until a cloudburst forced her to move to Peace House early Wednesday morning, Sheehan had been camping in a tent along a road about two miles from Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch. On Saturday, the day she arrived in Crawford, two senior White House aides -- national security advisor Stephen Hadley and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin -- left the ranch to meet with her on a dusty road for 45 minutes.
That, she said, was not satisfactory.
By Wednesday night, Sheehan had given so many interviews that she was sucking on lozenges to soothe an inflamed throat. Her ears were sore from cradling a telephone. Her media advisor, newly arrived from San Francisco, said Sheehan had developed a fever.
None of that stopped her. Whether talking to newspaper reporters, People magazine or radio and television interviewers -- some from as far away as Japan -- she was relentlessly on message.
"I don't believe his phony excuses for the war," she said of Bush in an interview with a CBS reporter for the network's Northern California affiliates. "I want him to tell me why my son died.
"If he gave the real answer, people in this country would be outraged -- if he told people it was to make his buddies rich, that it was about oil."
Sheehan is certainly not the first to denounce the president over the war. From the beginning, activists have been outspoken in criticizing Bush's policy and his stated reasons for sending U.S. troops into Iraq.
For the moment however, the personal nature of Sheehan's protest -- with its edge of raw emotion -- and the concentration of news media staked out in Crawford, where Bush is spending much of August, have combined to raise her voice above the crowd.
"Anything that focuses media and public attention on Iraq war casualties day after day -- particularly [something] that is a good visual for television, like a weeping Gold Star mother -- is a really bad thing for President Bush and his administration," said independent political analyst Charlie Cook.
"Americans get a little numb by the numbers of war casualties, but when faces, names and families are added, it has a much greater effect," he said.