BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. I'm pretty sure you know who this is.
CINDY SHEEHAN: I am an angry mom and I want answers to my questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Cindy Sheehan lost her son Casey, a Humvee mechanic, on April 4th, 2004. He was one of eight soldiers killed in Baghdad, Sadr City that day by rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. Earlier this month, she made her way to the President's ranch in Crawford and then settled in to sit and wait and give interviews and wait, and greet other grieving moms and wait for the President to give her a reason for the war and to hold him accountable for Casey's death. Late this week she took a temporary leave when her mother had a stroke but her quest has drawn multitudes to Crawford and that doesn't even count the press. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
REPORTER: It started out as a grieving mom on a lawn chair demanding to see the President; now Cindy Sheehan, speaking for the nation's anti war movement. Tonight we're live from Crawford, Texas with Cindy Sheehan.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What should we do about Mother? Discrediting her is frustrating work. You can hear it in Rush Limbaugh's voice.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Her story is nothing more than forged documents. There's nothing about it that's real. It's, it's nothing more than an attempt. It's the latest effort made by the coordinated left.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But defending her is as easy as apple pie. Air America's Randy Rhodes.
RANDY RHODES: God forbid the story gets out that Cindy Sheehan is just a mom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week Cindy Sheehan was the most cited person on blogpulse, a site that tracks chatter in the blogosphere, edging out customary front runner President Bush and an earlier challenger, Harry Potter. In those many blogs, Sheehan has been called everything from a saint to a whore, the voice of reason and the voice of treason. And not just in blogs. Fox's Bill O'Reilly.
BILL O'REILLY: I think Mrs. Sheehan bears some responsibility for this and also for the responsibility of other American families who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq who feel that this kind of behavior borders on treasonous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As her conservative critics find evidence in past statements to besmirch her name, liberal fact checkers seek to clear it, demonstrating just how the Drudge Report took her word seemingly praising the President when they met last year out of context, how she never said her son died for Israel. And as the argument grows louder, those talk show hosts who decline to condemn or canonize her only make it worse by taking the only other available route they know. They punditize her. MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked her to compare the campaign in Afghanistan to Iraq and she didn't make a distinction.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: The Taliban was harboring al Qaeda, which is the group that attacked us on 9/11.
CINDY SHEEHAN: Well, now, well, then we should have gone after al Qaeda and maybe not after the country of Afghanistan.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: But that's where they were being harbored. That's where they were headquartered. Shouldn't we go after their headquarters? Doesn't that make sense?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It would have been better if she'd simply kept mum, and she probably knows that.
CINDY SHEEHAN: I'm not a strategist. I'm not a military strategist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She's just a mom. And mindful of charges of political exploitation, Sheehan has bid the activists in her midst to take a back seat. She's moving camp closer to the President, courtesy of a kindly Crawford neighbor, and only moms and some dads get to go. One writer on the liberal blog, The Daily Kos would surely approve, and urge her to move further in that direction. He wrote, "We should call her Mother Sheehan. We should never call her Cindy. I don't know her. Mother Sheehan is her title and expresses her ceremonial status as a bereaved mother calling forth over the dead body of her son." Hmm. That's a little Machiavellian perhaps, or Rovian, but fiendishly clever because for the media, mother is very nearly an immoveable object. You can't knock her down. You can't blow her over. And as frustrating as it may be to some, she's particularly hard to "Rush."
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Most people, and I, I'll lump myself in with this crowd, in talking about Cindy Sheehan always offer the predicate that it's terrible she lost her son and we grieve with her and we're sorry for her and, and all that. And then it's followed by "but." Why are people doing this? Why, why, why are people saying, "Well, we're sorry that she lost her son, and it's got to be a terrible thing to go through and dah, dah, dah, dah, but" because people are afraid of criticism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why?
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Why should a mother have more moral authority on a particular issue than a father or the average person on the street?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a cultural thing, a very old cultural thing, the spiritual power projected on the bond between mother and child, a kind of purity that transcends politics and repels partisan attack, no matter how harsh. Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Political Mothers, says that a mother's moral authority only increases when her child dies.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: And there's something that kicks in when you think mother child. You think of someone young, vulnerable, dependent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sculpted by Michelangelo, perhaps?
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes, exactly. The image of the suffering mother, the image of Madonna and child. And you don't think of a grownup adult son who re-enlisted to fight a war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The mothers who finally brought an end to the notorious dirty war in Argentina made powerful use of that imagery. From 1976 to '83, people disappeared off the streets of Argentina every day, many young students, never heard from again. The mothers of the disappeared began to gather on Thursdays in a Buenos Aires square, walking in pairs, because it was illegal to assemble in groups, without their husbands, because it was not safe for them. Diana Taylor is the author of Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's Dirty War.
DIANA TAYLOR: There's a deep investment in the maternal in every society, and that's why it's so potent, because it's not an attack that's coming from the outside; it's coming from the very fiber of that society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Argentina, political activism was strictly forbidden but the grieving mothers, at least while they stayed in the square, were seemingly untouchable.
DIANA TAYLOR: They looked like matronly middle aged women. They wore flat shoes, and they started carrying the ID cards of their missing children, saying, these people existed, they've disappeared, we don't know where they are; you know where they are, we want you to be held accountable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Years of silent maternal reproach bore down on the dictatorship and strengthened the resistance, and eventually the government fell. Very soon, mothers' movements emerged in Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Serbia, Chechnya and elsewhere, recognizable because of the pictures they carried of the children no longer with them.
DIANA TAYLOR: And if you also look at what happened with the families here of 9/11, when they went to testify before the Commission, they were also carrying those photographs of their children. So these were a kind of a strategy that they had all taken up from the mother's movement in Argentina.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2000, Diana Dees Thomases organized the Million Mom March for stronger gun control regulations, one of the biggest protest marches in U.S. history.
DIANA DEES THOMASES: I wish I could tell you that I was a scholar of women's movements, but I wasn't. What I learned at the Million Mom March, and I really didn't have any background on this until the Million Mom March, that women are natural organizers after they have children. Suddenly you're organizing carpools, you're organizing field trips, you're on the PTA. Suddenly moms are joining the NAACP. Issues that affect them become more important, I think, once you have children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But eventually the mothers, defined in these movements as mothers and only as mothers, need allies who know how to wheel and deal and make things happen in an impure world. Jean Bethke Elshtain.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Over time, the symbolic appearance of grieving mothers in the public square begins to lose its force, and in a sense you've made your point. Now politics has to take over.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But beware! The gun lobby accused the Million Mom March of playing politics when it found a common cause with political allies. Cindy Sheehan is also vulnerable on that score, as she's beginning to learn. Again, Jean Bethke Elshtain.
JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: You're playing a very delicate game there because if at some point your use of that imagery can be seen to be highly partisan, then the moral authority starts to drain away from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And therein lies the dilemma for mothers and mothers' movements. They are powerful because they are perceived as pure. They grab attention across the political spectrum precisely because they transcend politics. But the political arena is where change happens. A madonna has no place there. Once she enters, she's no purer than Dad. (GUITAR MUSIC AND SINGING)