“The Khans’ Grief Is Being Used by a Party That Is Treacherous”

Will the Democrats fail the Khan family the way they failed Cindy Sheehan?

Cindy Sheehan

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Army Specialist Casey Sheehan was killed in Iraq, on Aug. 26, 2005 near President George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.  

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

One after another, reporters and pundits, hacks and flacks all began circulating George W. Bush’s response from more than a decade ago to the protest of a dead soldier’s parent. It was a lesson in manners for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who had just attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, themselves the parents of a dead soldier, for having denounced the candidate as an unpatriotic bigot at the Democratic National Convention. “Compare Trump to Bush addressing Cindy Sheehan,” tweeted a Daily Beast editor, echoing dozens of others.

Cindy Sheehan’s son was killed in the same war that later took the life of the Khans’ son, and like them, Sheehan in 2005 was both a living rebuke to the Republican Party’s vision and an asset to the Democrats in their mission to take back the House. A California soccer mom turned anti-war activist, Sheehan had set up camp outside of Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where she’d planned to stay until Bush had granted her a meeting.

“This is America,” Bush said at the time. “She has a right to her position.” Now that, people said, side-eyeing Trump, is how you handle a critic. Civilly, dispassionately, respectfully.

You can hear the Sorkin soundtrack swelling. Unless you’re Cindy Sheehan.

“People started saying Bush was kind to me when I was protesting—that’s incredible,” Sheehan said softly over the phone. “I was thoroughly bashed and attacked.”

It’s not an exaggeration to call Sheehan the face of the anti-war movement during the Bush years. Her son, Casey, was an Army specialist in the First Cavalry Division and, like Humayun Khan, he died in action. His mother’s initial mourning hardened into a tireless public campaign to end the war, the apex of which was her weeks-long demonstration outside of Bush’s ranch. The media eventually christened it “Camp Casey.”

Sheehan never got her meeting with the commander-in-chief. “Bush said I was entitled to my opinion, which is really patriarchal in the first place,” she said. “But the idea that the administration treated me well is, you know, that’s not what happened.”

It’s true, as the people tipping their hats to Bush have pointed out, that the president himself did not attack Sheehan the way Trump has gone after the Khans. But he didn’t have to. He let his underlings do it.

“Cindy Sheehan is a clown,” said Bush’s senior adviser and dirty trickster Karl Rove, whose management of the media ecosystem was unparalleled. The Washington Post reported at the time that Sheehan was a frequent topic of conversation between the president and his advisers. And somehow, some way, Rove’s sentiment trickled down into every pore of the conservative press. Bill O’Reilly called Sheehan “dumb enough” to get “in bed” with the radical left. Glenn Beck called Sheehan a “tragedy pimp” who was “prostituting her son’s death.” Rush Limbaugh said she was somehow lying about having lost her son.

“They were not only attacking me but digging into my background for anything that might undermine my character and undermine my message,” Sheehan said.

The hits rolled on. Paul Wolfowitz’s favorite travel and party companion, Christopher Hitchens, accused Sheehan in these pages of “echoing the Bin-Ladenist line” and called her opinions “wacko.” Others still called her a bad mother for not buying a tombstone quickly enough for her dead son. Michelle Malkin twisted the knife after Sheehan and her husband filed for divorce in 2005.

Sheehan said she was too busy campaigning to care about the smears. “I just buried my oldest son,” she told me. “And they’re calling me names online. That isn’t going to hurt me, or stop me.”

But one thing did get to her: “The scene I still see, and it’s really amazing to me, is the right-wing started to lie that I didn’t raise Casey. That I left his father and the family when he was 3 or 5 or 7—there are different stories—and that I didn’t even care about him, and after he died I was using his death for political fame. And then they started saying if I didn’t support what my son died for, I was a bad mother. I have four kids. To talk to me that way …” She trailed off.

“You can see Karl Rove’s dirty claw prints all over that one.”

Unlike Trump, Bush did it the right way. His team assassinated the character of his bereaved critic through the normal, respectable political channels. Meanwhile the man of the moment enjoyed plausible deniability and the praise of future journalists.

Sheehan sees the Khans’ story through the prism of her own sour experience in the public square. The villains aren’t all on one side of the aisle. “I think the Khans’ grief is being used by a party that is treacherous,” she said. “I have all the sympathy in the world for them. Not only sympathy, but empathy.”

She’s not just talking about the loss of her son but also her onetime alliance with the Democratic Party. After “Camp Casey,” Sheehan was a key figure in the Democrats’ efforts to reclaim power in Congress, which were predicated on riding, if not co-opting altogether, the moral energy of the anti-war movement. The strategy by the 2006 midterms was to rail against the now-unpopular war and regain a majority in the House. Sheehan met with members of Congress. She campaigned relentlessly. “Every Democrat I met with in 2005 said, ‘If you help us win the House, we’ll help you end the war,’ ” she recalled. Only one of those two things came true.

“Back when I was working with them after my son was killed, I was still a Democrat,” Sheehan said. “I still had some kind of illusion that they really cared about these issues the same way I did, but they really only cared about power.”

The party did reclaim Congress, though, and before long Nancy Pelosi presided over a new bill that continued to fund the war to the tune of $95 billion.

“I felt really betrayed,” Sheehan said. “But since then I’ve realized they didn’t betray me. It was my fault for thinking they would do anything else. If you pick up a rattlesnake, don’t be surprised if it bites you.”

She sounded unsurprised by the state of the party in 2016, shaken by a primary challenge from a (relatively) dovish, social-democratic coalition led by Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sheehan sighed at the idea of people at the DNC chanting “no more war” at the ex-director of the CIA and getting drowned out by a distinctly Trumpish chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

“What Trump says is rhetorically belligerent,” she said. “But what Clinton and the Democrats actually did, it killed people. Why was the Khans’ son in Iraq? Why was my son in Iraq?” (Khizr Khan has made the same point, albeit a little more gently: “As a Muslim American I feel that these policies are not in the interest of the United States of America. … We have created a chaos.”)

“That’s where the debate should be,” Sheehan went on. “If you support Hillary, I don’t really care, but you need to know what you’re supporting.”

She met Hillary in 2005, after Hollywood producer and Clinton backer Steve Bing arranged an introduction. “I was with my sister and another Gold Star mother,” Sheehan recalled. “We poured our hearts out to Hillary about how the war has destroyed our lives, the lives of the people of Iraq, and that she had a strong voice and we’d appreciate if she spoke out and worked to end the wars.” Sheehan said Clinton didn’t offer any comments; she just listened.

Sheehan later picked up the Village Voice and learned Clinton had met with a different group of Gold Star mothers who’d apparently urged the senator to “complete the mission.” Clinton said she still considered removing Saddam “a good goal” and rejected Sheehan’s calls for withdrawal.

“Nobody has a greater right to make that criticism,” Clinton said. “But I happen to think that fighting for freedom is a noble cause.”

These days Sheehan isn’t doing much organizing. She is housebound in Vacaville, California, taking care of her sister Dede, who is sick with cancer. From a distance, she sees Donald Trump upending the political landscape, causing liberals to praise George W. Bush and conservatives to consider voting for their nemesis, Hillary Clinton. And Cindy Sheehan, loathed by the Republicans and abandoned by the Democrats, doesn’t seem the least bit shocked.

“All these liberals are going, ‘Oh, look, even conservatives may vote for Hillary!’ ” she said with a laugh. “And I’m like, yeah—why aren’t you ashamed?”

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.