A close friend of mine went cycling with President Bush on Crawford Ranch last year and described a focused, relentlessly aggressive man on a mountain bike. Bush hammered out a hilly 18 mile course and left behind the guests and secret service agents trying to keep pace with his frenetic pedaling. There was nothing but him and the bike and the road and the pound of his heart. Good athletes are like this. Decent presidents are not.
Most endurance athletes discover that their minds, stimulated by endorphins released through exercise, tend to wander across a landscape of subjects. And when you find one that is engaging or significant, solutions and sensitivities unknown are suddenly discovered. That's why I wonder how the president can hit the trails of Prairie Chapel or even linger over his morning coffee and not be fixed on the unrelenting grief and resolve of Cindy Sheehan. She is becoming the symbol of our American Tiananmen.
I met Cindy Sheehan this time last year when she was trying to decide what to do about the loss of her son. We were strangers when we spoke on the phone but she was as honest as she was angry. Before a news conference at the National Press Club, she stood in an anteroom holding a large color poster of her smiling boy and she ran her fingertips over his mouth as though he were alive and could feel this affection. In that moment, I hated my president. And I hate having to hate anyone or anything.
A group of us went to dinner that night across the river in Arlington and Cindy asked me about all the years I had spent being a reporter and all of the sadness and loss I had encountered. She wanted to know what it was like years later for the mothers and fathers and siblings of soldiers I had written about and how they had adjusted or if they ever did. I had to tell her and her daughter sitting across from me that I never met anyone who had reached a point of total acceptance. The most vivid memory I had was of an 82-year-old Texas man whose oldest brother was one of nine boys from the tiny farming village of Praha who left for World War II. All nine of them died in different theaters of battle in the final year. But this 82 year old man said he was still expecting his big brother, who had died over sixty years ago, to come walking in the door looking like he had the day he left.
There are things worth fighting for. And there are even some worth dying for. But Iraq is not one of them. And none of us asked enough questions when it came time to send the Casey Sheehan's of the country into the desert hell of Iraq. More of us ought to be asking the questions now because it is just as important now as it was the day the war was launched. But we at least have Cindy Sheehan to do our asking. There are mothers' sons out there who will live full lives because the pressure being created by Cindy Sheehan will accelerate the end of this absurd American involvement in Iraq.
In every standoff there comes a time when the tide will turn in one direction. In our culture, these moments are palpable because a complicated question has been rendered into a simple confrontation between the just and the unjust, the big guy and the little guy, the powerful and the weak. And we all know who Americans choose in those kinds of fights. Cindy Sheehan, with her soft voice and steely determination, has given us a simple choice. We can stand with a mother who doesn't want other mothers to suffer the way she is suffering; or we can side with a president who offers us platitudes instead of exit strategies and unfounded optimism instead of honest logic. I'm on Cindy's side.
I choose to believe that Cindy Sheehan is proving to us again that America still functions as a democracy. Power and the presidency are still accountable to the Cindy Sheehan's of our country. She is helping a lot of otherwise disconnected people realize that this president has made a mistake with Iraq and his refusal to acknowledge that mistake is leading to more death. And I am certain that Casey is proud of his mother.
Every other American ought to be, too.