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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Celeste and Cindy and The Media

Part Five and the final in a Series of columns:
Part One:    They Came to Crawford.
Part Two:   Camp Casey and Casey Kelley
Part Three: The President & The Minister
Part Four: Mothers & daughters & Sisters

Celeste & Cindy

"I hope I helped this situation," said a tired but determined Celeste Zappala as she stood in the unrelenting Crawford sun one afternoon last week.

"I feel like a sort of vessel," she said. "The Lord fills us with life-affirming righteousness, and to this moment in time and place is when and where all my life's experiences have brought me. If I can be a gentle voice, and help change people's hearts, then I know I'm supposed to be here.

"I have to leave tonight and go back to work," she said, "but I'm going to return to Camp Casey. My son, Dante, is going to stay." She turned me around and introduced me to a tall dark-haired young man with gentle eyes. "He'll be here to help."

Zappala's oldest son and Dante's brother, Army Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was killed in Baghdad on April 26 2004. His mission that day was to guard a survey team that was searching for weapons of mass destruction. Later, when those weapons were found to be nonexistent, Sherwood's mother was moved to join with Cindy and Pat Sheehan, Bill Mitchell, Lila Lipscomb, Jane and Jim Bright, Sue Niederer and Dede Miller, who had all lost family members on the mean streets of Iraq, and together, they founded the Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization dedicated to ending the war in Iraq and bringing the troops home.

I had contacted her three weeks earlier in search of an interview. We've developed a back-and-forth email relationship since then, and this was my first opportunity to meet her face to face. After I initially approached her and identified myself, she immediately gave me a warm hug through which she displayed her easy affection while at the same time, she leaned on me for a bit for support.

"Tired?" I whispered.

She released from the hug, looked me in the eyes and sighed, "Oh, my, yes. But I'm holding up. This is too important."

I'd been watching Zappala and Cindy Sheehan since my arrival earlier in the day (see Part One:They Came to Crawford).  They weren't easy to miss. Sheehan moved around Camp Casey, surrounded by a cluster of men and women with cameras, microphones and notepads, each begging for a private moment with the woman of the hour.  Zappala, too, had her entourage, more manageable in number.  When the two women took a moment to stand together in order to share information or to find and give support, the marriage of their flocks led to gaggle members standing two or three deep, shouting questions, asking for photos, or simply standing in the back taking notes.

Cindy Sheehan and Celeste Zappala

"As the days go by, Cindy, do you think you're getting closer or farther away from your meeting with the president?" a voice rang out above the others.

"Farther," Sheehan replied. "If he had met with me the first day, none of this would have happened." Cameras whirred and pencils scratched at notepads.

"Do you think all the media attention has helped or hurt your cause?" came another question.

Cindy smiled calmly. "It's certainly helped. We had 700 people here yesterday and we are expecting over 1000 this weekend."

"Some ask, 'Why do you want another meeting with the president?' Wasn't the first one enough?" another question came, cutting through the din.

"Look," she said. "A lot has changed since that meeting. The Downing Street Memo, no WMD were found, no links between 9/11 and Saddam. I want to know the noble cause the president spoke of last week," She paused to gather her thoughts.

"The president works for us," she said at last. "He owes us a simple answer to that question. To the grieving mothers. To the 62% of the American public who are having doubts about the war."

"What was your first reaction to seeing the president drive by so close to you and not stop?" asked a young man in the front row without looking up from his pad.

Cindy waited until he looked up before responding, and then said directly, "I think if he was really in one of those cars, it was good for him to see real people who disagree with him.  He never sees that. He's always surrounded by people who are afraid to disagree with him."

She cleared her throat and said, "Excuse me. I've been talking since Saturday."

After a moment, she continued. "If the president can find time to speak with donors, why can't he find the time to speak with me? Maybe if I had a bunch of money to give him, he would have stopped."

This scene was repeated again and again that afternoon as new media members arrived and took the place of those who had gotten their footage, interview or sound bite and left.

It was near the end of that long afternoon of impromptu press conferences, interviews and meetings that I chose to reveal my name to Celeste and her son, Dante.

"This is the event we have all been waiting for," Celeste said putting her arm around her son. "The Gold Star Families are the leaders. We are asking the question everyone wants answered," she said, meaning Cindy's "noble cause" question. Then she stopped, smiled and exhaled a long, deep sigh. "I'm so tired," she whispered.

I took this as a cue that her interview time for the day was over. I introduced my wife, Peg, and Ben, our dog, to the Zappalas, extended my thanks and walked back up the road toward our car.

The Media

As we walked, I was struck with how things had changed. How protests had changed.  How the media had changed. The story of Camp Casey is quite simple: A grieving mother is asking the president why her son was killed, and she's addressing that question to the president through the Cyclops eye of the TV camera. That simple and quite human question is then broadcast instantaneously to the hungry world of international cable news and high-speed internet. I myself, earlier in the day had been reporting live on the internet from Camp Casey via a wireless cell card installed in my laptop computer.

I remembered the Vietnam protests where numbers mattered more than the simplicity of the message. The war seemed senseless to many for a long time, but it wasn't until hundreds of thousands of people came together to supply the nightly news with pictures of endless crowds of protesters lining both sides of the mall in Washington or campus quadrangles that the issue got carried into the mainstream.

Violence had to have erupted, campus buildings had to be held hostage, hundreds had to be arrested and, finally, protesting students had to be shot and killed on the rolling green grass of Kent State University in Ohio in order for the message to be personalized and heard. Then, and only then, did the mind of America begin to turn, and the support for the war eroded.  I remembered the photo of the helicopter on the roof of an out-building at the embassy compound in Saigon, overloaded for the final flight out, a pictorial representation of a war fought and abandoned.

Are we headed to a similar fate in Iraq? I have no idea.  But, if so, it may very well have begun not with massive protests or burning cars in the streets of Chicago, but with the globally beamed image of a single, grieving woman with a question sitting in a folding chair in a lonely ditch along a back road in Crawford, Texas.

My wife and I were silent as we drove back down Prairie Chapel Road. We rode back past the Broken Spike ranch where the president had attended his fundraiser, past the red brick church, past the monument to the Ten Commandments outside the Yellow Rose souvenir shop, past the Crawford Peace House, on to state road 6, back to Waco with its familiar world of Interstate exits and shopping malls, and back to our lives with our family and friends.

Ms. Sheehan, no doubt, will continue on her life's path, but no matter how well-known her face and popular her cause becomes, she will never be able to have the one thing she desperately desires: to be able, once again, to look into the eyes of her oldest son.

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Special Contributions from the following ePluribus Media members:
SusanG, Peg Keeler (bedarra), Standingup, Cho, Timroff

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