White House officials say President Bush has no plans to meet again with the mother of a U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq, who is leading an anti-war vigil outside the president's Texas ranch. Cindy Sheehan says she will travel to Washington to continue her protest, once Mr. Bush ends his Texas vacation.
Since Cindy Sheehan began her protest in a ditch along the dusty road to the president's ranch, Mr. Bush has been careful not to criticize the grieving mother, instead expressing sympathy for her loss and saying he understood how strongly she feels about the war.
But as the anti-war protest grows and the president's public approval ratings on the war fall, the Bush administration has altered its approach: maintaining sympathy for her loss, but portraying her demands for an immediate troop withdrawal as dangerous to national security.
In Idaho this week, President Bush said pulling out U.S. troops would embolden terrorists and make America more vulnerable to attack.
"I think immediate withdrawal from Iraq would be a mistake," he said. "I think those who advocate immediate withdrawal not only from Iraq but from the Middle East are advocating a policy that would weaken the United States."
This week, prior to meeting with families of National Guard troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush said Cindy Sheehan does not speak for most military families.
"I appreciate her right to protest and I understand her anguish," he added. "I have met with a lot of families. She doesn't represent the view of a lot of families I have met with."
Speaking to reporters at her protest site Thursday, Mrs. Sheehan says she has never claimed to speak for all military families, but believes the anti-war group, Gold Star Families for Peace, does reflect the concerns of many Americans.
"I never, ever got up here and said I speak for every single Gold Star family. I speak for every single military family. I've never said that. But I know I speak for thousands of them," she explained. "I know we speak for thousands of them when we want to know what is the noble cause our children died for. What is the noble cause they are still fighting for and dying for every day?"
Countering Mrs. Sheehan, the White House introduced a soldier's mother Wednesday with a different point of view.
President Bush singled out Tammy Pruett, who now has four sons in Iraq, reading from a letter in which she said that if something happened to one of her boys, she would know he left the world doing what is right for the country.
Cindy Sheehan says she sympathizes with everyone who has lost a family member in the war, regardless of whether they support the president.
"We respect their rights to their opinions because at the end of the day, or at the beginning of this quest we started in the same way: with our loved one coming home in a flag-draped coffin," she said. "And if there is any family who says that they believe their child died for a noble cause, I say that is your right. If that helps you get through the day. If that helps you in your pain, because we might not have the same politics, but trust me, we have the same pain."
White House Spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters again Thursday that President Bush empathizes with Mrs. Sheehan and those who oppose the war, but he feels fundamentally different about the need to keep up the fight against terrorism. He says there are no plans to meet again with Mrs. Sheehan, who spoke to the president on a military base shortly after her son was killed.