Tuesday, August 09, 2005

AWOL Again

Somewhere outside Crawford, Texas a smart-tough woman threatens the president with weapons of mass media destruction or is it weapons of mom's derision. Cindy Sheehan is 48 and wants the president to explain what noble cause her son Casey died for in Sadr City. She has pledged to wait for a meeting with the president as long as he stays in Crawford on his 5 week vacation. Thus far, the president has not met with her personally, a small gesture that grows in significance the longer Cindy Sheehan waits between the road and ditch in Crawford.

Almost exactly fifty years ago, it was Rosa Parks who helped put a face on the Civil Rights movement for the media. Looking back, the story would never have gone national had the bus driver not called the police and had the police not gone through with the arrest. Something many people don't realize was that Rosa Parks was both a seamstress and the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and had attended something called the "Highlander Folk School" a training institute for worker and civil rights. Rosa Parks was not the first African-American to refuse to give up a seat on the bus or train. There had been many others since Homer Plessy refused in New Orleans 60 years earlier. Rosa Parks was the story that became a national/international pheomenon.

I admire Cindy Sheehan. I'm proud of the fact that she comes from Vacaville, about 50 miles from where I live. While the media wants to see the simple grieving mother. I admire the discipline and thought that went into her trip to Crawford. It wasn't national political figures who gave the Civil Rights movement its first boost into national consciousness, it was Rosa Parks, a group of students in suits at a lunch counter in Greensboro, a minister in Montgomery, Alabama who gave the movement a face. We forget that even then though, it wasn't just faces, there was a media strategy behind each of these "incidents". Each time, the strategy worked it was at least partly because the opposition would do the stupidest thing. Whether that was arresting an old woman sitting in the black section of the bus because she wouldn't give her seat up to a white man, using firehoses and dogs on peaceful marchers, or simply refusing to serve four well-dressed polite North Carolina A&T students at Woolworth's lunch counter.

I'm not sure what would happen if President Bush walked out by himself and invited Mrs. Sheehanin for a cold drink and a private chat. It woudn't take more than 20 minutes and what would there be to protest once that happened. The worst thing Cindy Sheehan would have to say is that the president disagreed with her and maybe didn't seem very sympathetic. Hypnotists use something called "paradoxical induction" where the only way to resist is by doing something the hypnotist wants you to do....e.g. "Tell me why you don't want to be hypnotized..." the subject starts telling the reasons and thus starts following the hypnotists directions to resist"
Coming to Crawford and asking to meet with the president is a classic paradoxical induction. If the president doesn't meet with you, the world sees an elected public servant who can't take time out from his vacation to spend a few minutes with a grieving mother. If he does, then he's done what she asked. She also gets the comfort of knowing the president cares at least a little bit. It's what happens when you challenge somenoen to be actually compassionate.

I'm not sure where the "they're threatening to arrest us on Thursday" thing came from, but it certainly works as a way to focus the coverage and give them an event non-event to count down to. I for one am guessing that the President and his advisors will make the wrong call. I have no idea what the administration is so afraid of about having the meeting. Perhaps they believe there will be thousands more Cindy Sheehans wanting to meet with him sooner than we think. Perhaps, the president can't look her in the eye and explain without a script or a box underneath the back of his suit. Perhaps, they don't want to appear like they're giving in to what Gold Star Mothers for Peace has orchestrated and simply don't understand the paradox it presents for them.

I think back to 1955 and ask, "What would have happened if the bus driver had simply let it go or if the officers didn't make the arrest or if the man had simply told the driver "It's okay, I'll stand this time." What became so scary that they coudn't engage in a small act of kindness? The President's handlers appear to have backed themselves into a Godelian paradox. When asked in the 2004 debates if he could name the three biggest mistakes of his presidence, the president struggled with and never answered the question. It seems that this infallibility is more important than just cutting the gordian knot and coming out offering the woman who lost her son some lemonade even though she disagrees with him. Somehow if Donald Rumsfeld could shake hands with Saddam, this one hardly seems like a stretch. On the other hand, the president didn't wind up on the best of terms with the New Jersey Widows from 9/11 who simply wanted hearings about the events that led to their loved ones' deaths.

Presidents don't make laws. Often, even their decisions are really based on recommendations from layers of advisers rather than first-hand in depth study. Much of what a president does is ceremonial. He, maybe someday, she has to give the impression that the government and the president are there to serve all Americans whether they gave money to the campaign or not. Attacking the character of a grieving mom who just lost a son to your war hardly makes one seem more presidential. Suggesting that each grieving family is entilted to just one presidential visit is like trying to ration freedom. The pope has robes but the mystique of the presidency depeneds on our myths about democracy. A cherished part of that myth is that the president is not a king or queen, but a first citizen elected by his/her fellow citizens. When Richard Nixon lost this, he lost even Republicans, except the ones like Karl Rove who found a way to get back in power.

When the president fails in this role of keeping the "myth of the citizen leader" alive, he is AWOL. Every day Cindy Sheehan waits is one more day for the American public to ask the question. Is this the only duty this president has been AWOL for? btw, I'm not talking about the National Guard here.

Meet With Cindy

If you can't get to Crawford

Thank you Cindy Sheehan for being smart and for being tough. At least someone in Crawford appears to be both of those things.


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