You'd have to either really love peace or the president to camp out in Crawford, Texas in the middle of summer. The temperature can climb to a withering 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) before noon. The ground is crawling with red fire ants just waiting to jab their poisonous stingers into feet and calves. The local sheriff warns against rattlesnakes. "I wouldn't sleep on the ground out here on the prairie," he says.
But despite the discomfort, hundreds of protestors have endured here in the sweltering heat, within view of the presidential ranch, while more and more enthusiastic campers willing to brave the elements arrive every day from all over the country. It's getting crowded here in the arid -- and normally empty -- Texas countryside. Now, in addition to the anti-war activists, Bush supporters are also flocking to the area. They are there to defend the war in Iraq.
The result is a problem that the small town of Crawford -- population 705 -- isn't exactly used to. "Heavy traffic ahead" warns a new, digital highway sign at the entrance to the blink-and-you-miss-it settlement. Other signs have joined it; war protestors have hung their own slogans on prairie fences in the area. "Eighty-two dead, while Bush went fishing," reads one.
The two camps -- the president's detractors and his supporters -- are irreconcilable when it comes to Iraq. But they do agree when it comes to their one common enemy: nature. Out on Prairie Chapel Road, Bush supporters are permitted to use the better-organized peace movement's portable toilets. Former soldiers return the favor by offering the protestors tips to ward off heat stroke: Pour water on your clothes and hold ice packs to your head.
Why the effort? It's all because of Cindy Sheehan -- a mother whose son Casey died in the war in Iraq -- and her disgruntlement with the ongoing violence there. For weeks, she has been besieging the ranch near Crawford where US President George W. Bush has been spending his astonishingly lengthy vacation. With the unassailable authority of a grieving mother, Sheehan asks the question that the rest of America is also beginning to ask: For what, exactly, are our children dying?
It's the stuff of drama -- the story of the president and the grieving mother. Ever since Cindy Sheehan arrived in Crawford on August 6, she has been demanding that the president answer her questions in person. "I don't believe that my son died for a noble cause," she says.
Bush may have refused to give in to her demands, but the persistent Cindy has become a constant fixture, her presence felt whenever the president makes a public appearance at the ranch or whenever his motorcade comes or goes. Indeed, the president and the mother are already deeply involved in a very public dialogue. We owe them something, says the president, referring to US soldiers who have already died in Iraq. We must "finish the task they gave their lives for."
Cindy Sheehan is 48 years old, unemployed, and speaks with the squeaky voice of a teenager. Her eyes are sad and the corners of her mouth tilt downward. Her son's name is tattooed above her left ankle.
Casey wanted to become a priest. He joined the military to save money for college and was so deeply religious that he refused to have sex before marriage. Casey Sheehan was killed on April 4, 2004, in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, after volunteering to recover a wounded fellow soldier. He was 24 years old.
A mother's pain has made Cindy Sheehan an icon of the American peace movement. Her friends call her "Attila the Sweet," in honor of her perseverance; she even broke off ties with a friend in her hometown of Vacaville, near San Francisco, when she discovered that the friend had voted for Bush. Her husband, who prefers to mourn his son privately, left her because she had turned her grief into a public demonstration. Her two remaining children have said that she should pay more attention to them than to protesting against the Iraq war. And then she pitched her tent in Crawford and stuck white crosses bearing the names of the war dead along a dusty roadside. That was when the president's vacation troubles began.
Bush sent National Security Advisor Steven Hadley and Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin to meet with Sheehan. Both men tried to talk to Sheehan, but she was unimpressed. She refuses to back down, insisting on speaking directly with Bush. The presidential motorcade occasionally rumbles past the protestors' camp on its way to the airport.
Even Republican strategists now concede that it was probably a mistake for the president not to meet with Cindy. She is well-known, she is popular and she refuses to be sidelined or smeared.
And she is making life difficult for the White House. "She has every right in the world to say what she believes," Bush keeps saying. But withdrawing from Iraq, he says, "would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long run."
Last week, the president made a brief trip to Nampa, Idaho to speak to members of the National Guard and their families. A band played patriotic marching music to warm the hearts of the 9,500 supporters in his audience. After the speech, Bush met with 19 families who had lost relatives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then the White House's spinners hit the talk shows to tell their moving stories of the many hours they say the president has spent meeting privately with countless families of the war dead. They spoke of the 900 family members Bush, his lips trembling, his eyes brimming with tears, has already met this year alone. Cindy Sheehan was part of one of these larger groups the president met with, in June 2004. But she wasn't on a mission then.
Sheehan was forced to leave Crawford for a short time earlier this month when her mother suffered a stroke. The commotion subsided in her absence, but she's been back since last Wednesday. The countryside around "Camp Casey" has once again become a place where media broadcast vans share the narrow roads with tractors.
And the camp shows no signs of going anywhere soon. New generators rattle provide power to the prarie, an ice machine and refrigerators have just arrived, and logistics at the camp are improving by the hour. There's recycling and there are compost piles, even a shuttle service for the protestors. They call it the "Cindy Shuttle." Cindy Sheehan now lives in an air-conditioned trailer.
Woodstock folksinger Joan Baez recently visited the camp. "It feels historic here," said the legend. Crawford, though, is no Woodstock, but the community of the sensitive has become a small force of its own. A documentary about the other Crawford bears the working title "Bushstock 2005."
Throughout the country, peace groups have begun dreaming of the emergence of a powerful anti-war movement that could force the president to withdraw from Iraq. The protestors at Camp Casey have already assembled a crude model of a commemorative plaque, with the inscription: "The end of the Iraq war began here in 2005."
Astonishingly, not a single Democratic politician critical of the war has turned up in Crawford. A pact with the peace movement, considered unpatriotic, would presumably be political suicide for John Kerry or Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, the summer drama in Crawford and its echo throughout the country is an indicator of a gradual shift in the public mood in America.
The president plans to end his vacation and return to the White House on Sept. 3. The grieving mother plans to follow him to Washington.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan