"Flip-flopping" Americans

Right-wing bloggers are attacking military mom Cindy Sheehan for changing her mind about Iraq. But so have millions of other citizens.

Published August 9, 2005 4:20PM (EDT)

Cindy Sheehan, the angry 48-year-old mom from Vacaville, Calif., whose son died while serving in the Army in Iraq and who has been staging a lonely bring-the-troops-home vigil outside President Bush's ranch beneath the baking Texas sun, has clearly become a thorn in the president's vacationing side. Putting a public and empathetic face on the war's toll in America, Sheehan, whose son, Casey, was killed in April 2004, has posed a very simple request to Bush: Come out and talk to me about Iraq and why my son died. To date, Bush has passed on the invitation, but the minions on the far right have decided to try to knock Sheehan off her media perch, just as more military mothers and fathers opposed to the war are set to join Sheehan's protest.

Taking peculiar pleasure in trying to discredit the small-town mother, right-wingers have been in a tizzy over what they perceive as a flip-flop by Sheehan on Iraq. They excitedly reassure themselves that her alleged inconsistency about the war ought to disqualify her from being a legitimate war critic. Problem is, the oddly playful bloggers, busy mocking Sheehan as a "crazy," "exploited," "left-wing moonbat," aren't really staring down a lone mother who may or may not have shifted her opinion about Bush and the war since 2004.

If the Republican National Committee-fed bloggers looked up from their monitors for a few seconds, they might realize that when they're done with Sheehan they're going to have to discredit a few million other Americans -- because, as recent polls indicate, they, like Sheehan, have turned on the war and place the blame for the mess squarely on Bush's shoulders.

Over the weekend conservatives at the Free Republic unearthed a June 25, 2004, article from Sheehan's hometown newspaper, the Reporter, which detailed Sheehan's visit with Bush at Fort Lewis near Seattle earlier that month. Portions of the article suggested Sheehan was grateful for her time with Bush, in contrast with her current complaints about him. Freepers then passed along the clip to Matt Drudge, who talked about it on his Sunday-night syndicated radio show. On Monday morning he hyped his analysis on his Web site, concluding that Sheehan "has dramatically changed her account about what happened when she met the commander-in-chief last summer!"

The pull quotes from the article included, among others, "'I now know he's sincere about wanting freedom for the Iraqis,' Cindy said after their meeting. 'I know he's sorry and feels some pain for our loss. And I know he's a man of faith.'"

Bloggers embraced the so-called scoop, demanding to know why Sheehan had changed her mind. "Something has happened to Ms. Sheehan to change her opinion of the President. Until she explains herself, it is very difficult to take her ranting seriously," wrote Conservative Dialysis (its motto: "Removing liberal waste from the American bloodstream"). "Remember, it may very well be that she has an excellent reason for her change in viewpoint. However, until she reveals it to the public, I don't think anyone can take her anti-war ranting seriously."

Again and again the deep thinkers on the right pretended to be stumped -- stumped! -- as to why Sheehan, over a 14-month span, would change her mind about Bush and about Iraq.

By Monday afternoon, the Raw Story got hold of the original Reporter article, in its entirety (which the newspaper has since reposted online), and discovered that Drudge had torn what he considered the incriminating portions of the article out of context.

Here are the portions of the June 24 newspaper clip Drudge purposefully left out: "We haven't been happy with the way the war has been handled," Cindy said. "The president has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached."

The article continued: "But in the end, the family decided against such talk, deferring to how they believed Casey would have wanted them to act. In addition, Pat [Sheehan's husband] noted that Bush wasn't stumping for votes or trying to gain a political edge for the upcoming election."

And this: "Sincerity was something Cindy had hoped to find in the meeting. Shortly after Casey died, Bush sent the family a form letter expressing his condolences, and Cindy said she felt it was an impersonal gesture."

So, out of respect for her son and for Bush, Sheehan, clearly uneasy about the war and Bush's handling of it in 2004, opted against a face-to-face confrontation 14 months ago. But now she's itching for one. Put in full context, Drudge's claim of a flip-flop is easily dismissed.

But what if Sheehan were guilty of a full 180-degree turnaround? What if, even in the wake of her son's death in 2004, Sheehan had praised Bush's leadership, only to become a critic by the summer of 2005? What would be so hard to understand about that?

Sheehan herself put it best. Speaking with Air America recently, she noted, "Why is my meeting in June of 2004 relevant? Over 1,100 more soldiers are dead since then, the Downing Street memo report [has come] out, the Senate intelligence report has come out, and the 9/11 Commission report has come out. Saddam is gone, they've had free democratic elections in Iraq, and our troops are still there."

In other words, things change, information accumulates and people react accordingly. Apparently, however, bloggers like Michelle Malkin, who took it upon herself in one of her posts to speak for Sheehan's dead son (does their arrogance know no bounds?), have convinced themselves that thinking people simply do not change their opinions about dynamic issues like war and peace, ever. No matter how strong the insurgency in Iraq grows, no matter how many coalition countries walk away from the rebuilding effort, no matter how many dates are set for Iraq's sovereignty, no matter how many Americans are killed, no matter how many billions of dollars Halliburton pockets with no-bid contracts, no matter how much evidence accumulates that the Bush administration was both dishonest about the war during the run-up and incompetent during the so-called reconstruction, Americans, let alone parents of dead service members, are not supposed to alter their views. They're not supposed to flip-flop.

Somebody forgot to tell the U.S. adult population, because just within the past few months there's been an awful lot of flip-flopping going on regarding Iraq, with more and more Americans heading for the exits. According to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, released Monday, 57 percent of American adults think the war has made the United States less safe from terrorism. That's up 18 percentage points in just 60 days.

Additionally, in the same new poll, 54 percent said they believe it was a mistake to send U.S. troops to Iraq, while 44 percent said it was not a mistake. Those figures are reversed, in a 17-point swing, from those in June.

It seems pretty clear that until the mess in Iraq is cleaned up, more and more Americans are going to join Sheehan in opposing the war. And the ranks of alleged flip-floppers will continue to grow.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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George W. Bush Iraq War Matt Drudge