Bring Em On

We go a-visiting with the president

Photo by Rebecca SchoenkopfThe six of us on the puddle-jumper from Houston to Waco had to sit in the back to keep it from nose-diving. Nobody cared for the thought, or the turbulence. But it was a friendly group, united and bonded in fear, and the old man in the U.S. Army Retired ball cap and the flag lapel pin was happy to answer when the young, pretty black girl who said she majors in political science asked him what he thought about what was going on . . . she said it shyly . . . "over there."

"We never should have gone there in the first place," he said, dry and crotchety but matter-of-fact. "The whole thing was based on lies."

It wasn't the answer I expected from an old coot in Texas.

* * *

I was on my way to Crawford to see the president, and I did: I saw him Saturday night on the teevee from my perch in the bar at the Waco Hilton, taking in the nearby Little League game with Condi—and Laura in the center seat for the block. I got a sight better look at him than America's newest Public Enemy No. 1, Cindy Sheehan, did, camped as she was in a ditch and utterly lacking either teevee or bar. All she saw of him was his motorcade—and behind those tinted windows, he was probably giving her the finger.

The president looked happy, relaxed, pretty great, and he should have: his schedule that day had included a nap, lunch with Condi, some fishing, some "reading," a two-hour bike ride with reporters and the Little League game.

It did not include a trip to Camp Casey.

* * *

The gravel lane off Prairie Chapel Road is still a couple of miles from the president's Crawford spread, but it's as close as the Secret Service will let Cindy Sheehan get. And around Sheehan has sprung a movement; perhaps you've seen it on the teevee your own bad self! Named for her son Casey, who died in Iraq a year ago after volunteering for a rescue mission, the encampment of folks includes a lot of signs and a lot of milling about. There are tents crammed between the lane and barbed wire and booths piled high with food. There is also a beautiful installation by Arlington West, featuring more than 800 small white crosses, inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers and lovingly tended with flags and flowers.

There ain't much to do at the side of a Texas prairie, except flirt with the photogs and the special agents, and I was pretty much the only person doing that, so there's a lot of time to be killed (and made): the tall, soft-spoken, unglamorous Sheehan, who this week has been called a kook, a nutball, a traitor and a whore and whose husband on Friday filed for divorce (really, she's just had one hell of a week), has vowed to stay at the side of the road outside Crawford all of the president's five-week vacation or until he scoots out to talk to her, whichever comes first. And I have a sneaking suspicion as to which one will.

* * *

But if the president wasn't heeding Sheehan's call, about 300 other people were. Maybe it was 400—it was hard to tell: at any one time about half were at Camp Casey and half were back at the Crawford Peace House, shielding themselves from the 100-degree heat on the grass under grand old trees, walking the labyrinth of the stone mandala, or pitching in to unload gifts and supplies people had trucked in.

While one guy at the Peace House asked, "Who wants 20 cases of Coke?" to general lefty apathy, another laughed about the "lesbian agenda," and a woman with a five o'clock shadow coordinated somethingvery efficiently. Loaded buffet tables stood in rows in a tent, and people from Minnesota and Louisiana and Pennsylvania and Florida and lots and lots of Texas wandered among them, making time and killing it at once.

They'd all come to rally with this woman, this regular lady, who's not particularly camera-ready but who's agreed to be The Face anyway—and by "agreed," I mean a tacit agreement, an organic one, like every piece of fruit served at this damn place. No professionals have come to Sheehan and drafted her to be a spokeswoman, she just became one, and people—including professional organizers like the peace chicks of Code Pink—have flocked around her to help.

Well, for the most part. An awful lot of people are also flocking onto the television to call this woman with a dead son names.

* * *

My boyfriend had broken up with me for breaking up with him, even though I totally took it back, so I figured the Hilton, with the press corps, was the perfect place to be. And it was, though I just ended up with a new posse of married guys. As we watched the Raiders on one screen and Bush on another, Charlie, an old sound guy from ABC, said he loves covering George because he never runs late. When I wrote down that he said that the trains ran on time, Charlie threatened to complain to my editor. It was something about journalistic ethics, which is of course hilarious,and it made me laugh and laugh. I yelled at mainstream reporters about lots of other stuff—Siragusa came up, as Siragusa is wont to do, but that one call during that Patriots game (you know the one!) came up too.

But switching to Scotch with my new AP pal was only a good idea till Sunday morning, when I woke up with eyes like beeyootiful rubies in my dank little dump of a Motel Six.

Back at Camp Casey during Sunday morning's super-ecumenical prayer service (a rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar . . . ), Crazy Larry across the road decided to shoot off rounds from his shotgun. "I'm getting ready for dove season," he told the instalanche of cameramen, although since none of them used to date a fireman, none of them knew dove season starts Sept. 1, and then he started ranting about the Port-A-Potties down the lane and out of sight, next to which thoughtful folks had piled new boxes of baby wipes and bottled water and antibacterial soap. "It's the battle of the Port-A-Potties!" he crowed, while our new buddy Ed from the Secret Service showed just how valuable diplomacy can be. "Sir, are you all right? Do you need to sit down? How about a cold cloth for your forehead?" he intoned, while another agent was on his headset with a supervisor. "No, we did not authorize any shots," he replied to what was surely a ration of shit.

After Crazy Larry left, a TV-ready Amurrican family joined the lonely counterprotester across the road, the one with the sign reading "Sheehanistan: American Haters [sic] Welcome." The GQ-cowboy dad told reporters he had to fly for work after 9/11, and he hadn't let the terrorists stop 'im. "What do you do for work?" someone asked—probably my buddy at the Oakland Tribune, since he was the only reporter actually working. The rest, who for all of the weekend would remain unseen, manned the air conditioner back at the Press Center or maybe took a pleasure drive through Crawford's just-flat-gorgeous fields. "I'm an automobile auctioneer," proudly answered GQ, part of the thin blue line of auto auctioneers between us and the terrorists, keeping it real and keeping us safe. His little boy, in cammies, waved a plastic AK.

* * *

A lot is being made on the blogs and on the talk shows about the co-opting of Cindy Sheehan by "the left." These are the fringe groups,they're snarling, the far left!—and yeah, PETA was there. But a lot of the guys there were Vietnam vets, while the rest were pretty middle-aged and wholesome, middle-class and earnest. People ate meat, and smoked cigarettes, and drove cars with internal combustion engines. Aside from the fact that there were recycling bins, even in the middle of a field, it really was awfully mainstream—and with more than half of Americans now saying Iraq wasn't worth it, now "the mainstream" is us. Of course, at Sunday's lunch at the Peace House—a gorgeous Middle Eastern buffet, hosted by a group of Iraqi-Americans who fed the multitudes like Jesus with loaves and fishes—I did have a particularly crunchy exchange.

"So the Iraqi women made this beautiful lunch for us!" the woman sitting next to me lilted over her lavash. "Have you met any of them yet?"

"They're in the kitchen," I answered, clearly joking, and because the sentence demanded it, added, "where they belong!"

"Oh, nooo!" she reproved me, shocked and distraught.

Okay, whatever, San Francisco.

Luckily, there were some smart-ass dudes from Austin, listening to Willie Nelsonand drinking Lone Stars by their truck, to steal beers and make fun of her, while back in town, some bikers across the tracks from the Peace House were made to take down their signs calling the protesters pussies. Sorry, dudes. I guess freedom of speech isn't free.

* * *

I'd been worried about Sheehan sleeping by the side of the road. With all these yahoos yahooin' all over the place, I figured it wouldn't be long before someone took a shot at her instead of into the hot, still air, and the Crawford sheriff agreed. He asked her to stay down at the Peace House by nights.

And the night I left, a 46-year-old real-estate agent in a pickup truck drove a beeline to her tent. She wasn't there, but the "Arlington of Crawford" was, and he smashed more than 500 of the 800 little white crosses, with flowers and flags, that bore witness to our dead.

I wonder about the pundits who call Cindy Sheehan a traitor. I wonder what they think of that.



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