Cindy Sheehan, 48, is not a natural-born revolutionary. She speaks in a high, almost childlike voice. She says like as often as any teenager, as in, "This whole thing was like so freaking spur of the moment." When her supporters gather to discuss strategy, Sheehan is not to be found in the circle of beach chairs; she is 50 yards up the road, doing yet another interview, hugging yet another stranger. But here she is, the mother of Casey, 24, who died in Iraq last year, and now the central character in the strange, swirling protest she initiated two miles down the road from President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Sheehan is unflinching about why she's here. She says George W. Bush killed her son. She demands that U.S. troops come home now, and she insists on telling that to Bush personally. She speaks without caveat. "I'm not afraid of anything since my son was killed," she says. But she has never been one to move quietly through life. Father Michael McFadden, a priest she once worked for, calls her "very defiant, very stubborn, very strong willed" when dealing with authority. When a soldier from the local base comes by to argue with her, she asks him to go for a walk. She puts her arm around him. Soon they are hugging. Her friends call her Attila the Honey.
Back home in California, her family is imploding under its grief. Sheehan lost her job at Napa County Health and Human Services because of all her absences, she says. Husband Pat, 52, couldn't bear having Casey's things at home and put most of them in storage. "We grieved in totally different ways," Cindy says. "He wanted to grieve by distracting himself. I wanted to immerse myself." A car tinkerer, he added two 1969 VW Bugs to his collection recently and diverted some of his sorrow into them. The couple separated in June.
Daughter Carly, 24, wrote a poem that begins, "Have you ever heard the sound of a mother screaming for her son?" Surviving son Andy, 21, supports his mother in principle but recently sent her a long e-mail imploring her "to come home because you need to support us at home," he says. Casey's aunt Cherie Quartarolo e-mailed a California radio station last week to rebuke Cindy, writing, "She appears to be promoting her own personal agenda at the expense of her son's good name."
Outside her family circle, Sheehan's crusade has been just as divisive. Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin has called the protesters "terrorist-sympathizing agitators." But at a time when 56% of the respondents in a CNN poll say they think the war is going poorly, this wandering mother has tapped into a national well of worry: Are our troops dying in vain? "People were looking for something to do," says Sheehan. Now they are calling to see whether they can sign over their Social Security checks to her.
Still, it is hard to know when a flash-fire protest in a prairie will turn into something more. Surely it didn't happen when Martin Sheen called (which was on Day 5). Nor did it when the police donned riot gear, as they did on Day 7, when the President's motorcade came within 100 feet of Sheehan's ramshackle encampment. (Riot gear is casual fashion for police at protests these days, after all.) Attendance figures--about 100 by midweek--did not break any records either.