Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Cindy Sheehan and George W. Bush's Sympathy

I read the Newsweek article about Pres. Bush's meetings with families of soldiers killed in Iraq, and have been taking in the reactions on the right to the article's theme of a compassionate president who cries with those who have lost loved ones to this war, and feels the deaths of American men and women very deeply. I have a few thoughts about the article, and the flood of posts declaring this to be the "real" Bush.

I am not one of those who thinks this is a "puff piece"; or at least not more so than other recent articles could be seen by those who support Bush's policies as "hatchet jobs." Newsweek has published several investigative pieces about the various ways in which the Bush admin has screwed up -- including, most recently, Michael Hirsh's article about Tora Bora and how Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon let Osama bin Laden get away.

On the other hand, it's absurd to claim, as conservative bloggers have been doing, that the current Newsweek article completely invalidates Cindy Sheehan's accounts of how she was treated by Bush when he met with her in June of 2003; or that it somehow proves that Bush's reputation for indifference toward American deaths in Iraq is untrue.

If anything, the article demonstrates the shallowness of Bush's sympathy and the carefully prepped surroundings he needs in order to show it:

The grieving room was arranged like a doctor's office. The families and loved ones of 33 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan were summoned to a large waiting area at Fort Bragg, N.C. For three hours, they were rotated through five private rooms, where they met with President George W. Bush, accompanied by two Secret Service men and a photographer. Because the walls were thin, the families awaiting their turn could hear the crying inside.

Does that sound heart-warming to you? I find it rather chilling. The Newsweek writers compare the scene to a doctor's office; but the image that comes to my mind is of a museum exhibit opening: planned, structured, and organized to handle the expected crowds.

The point is not that George W. Bush has no feeling for the Americans killed in Iraq or their loved ones. The point is that he can only express that feeling in carefully stage-managed surroundings; in settings of his own choosing. He can only listen to the crying or answer the questions about why and what for when he controls and shapes the environment. He cannot handle spontaneity or the unplanned, unprepared moment. Which is why he will only speak or make an appearance in front of preselected audiences where he does not have to face an unexpected or an uncomfortable question or comment. It's one thing to listen to an angry question about why a brother or son or husband had to die when the person asking the question is next in an orderly line ushered into the room by a friendly, protective aide on a friendly, protective military base. It's quite another to listen to such a question asked by a person who has not been given official permission to come forward and speak, with no staff to manage the event, in an unprepped environment, surrounded by people who oppose your policies.

The Bush supporters who say that Bush is perfectly willing to face angry questions from families who want to know why their loved ones had to die also miss the point that Cindy Sheehan is not simply asking the president to listen to her personal grief or tell her why her own son had to die. She is not even asking him to justify the policy. She is demanding of him that he change the policy. She stands there in front of his ranch insisting on a meeting so that she can tell him that he needs to end the occupation and bring U.S. troops home so that no more mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers have to ask why Bush broke their heart.

And that is something he is not prepared to do. He is not going to end the occupation or bring the troops home -- at least not until it's politically expedient for him to do so. He does not want to answer the question, "If you are so sorry that my loved one is dead, why are you continuing to send other families' loved ones to die?" He is willing, within environments he can shape and control, to give a hug and shed a tear for a mother's agony. He is not willing to answer to the mother of Casey Sheehan for the consequences of a war started because of trumped-up charges supported by fraudulent intelligence and implemented through secret prewar planning.

And that is why I am unimpressed by GWB's quivering lip and reddened eyes. He lied and misled Cindy Sheehan and every other American family about both his plans and his reasons for going to war, and continues to justify and support a war that is clearly a failure. Until he has a change of heart about that, all his demonstrations of compassion and shared pain fall short.

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