Bushites Launch Propaganda Blitz Against Sheehan & the Anti-War Protesters
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Bushites Launch Propaganda Blitz Against Sheehan & the Anti-War Protesters
White House, military kin launch effort

Boston Globe |  August 23, 2005
By Nina J. Easton and Susan Milligan

WASHINGTON -- Facing sagging public opinion polls and an increasingly spirited antiwar movement, the Bush administration and its allies this week launched a broad public relations offensive, with a presidential defense of the war -- including an acknowledgment of the conflict's mounting death toll -- and a caravan of supportive military families carrying their message to the Bush ranch in Texas.

In an address to the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Salt Lake City yesterday, President Bush resisted calls for an early withdrawal. He noted that each of the 1,864 American casualties in Iraq and the 223 in Afghanistan ''left grieving families and loved ones back home," and he declared, ''We owe them something. We will finish the task that they gave their lives for."

Seven hundred miles away, in San Francisco, a conservative group called Move America Forward launched a multicity bus and car caravan under the banner ''You Don't Speak for Me, Cindy" -- a reference to Cindy Sheehan, the soldier's mother who became the face of the antiwar movement after planting herself outside Bush's Crawford ranch to protest the death of her son.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is increasing media access to soldiers in the field in an attempt to highlight their successes in Iraq. Administration officials fear that the deadly insurgency and reports of US deaths have overshadowed the progress made on the ground.


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For the past week, Sheehan and the peace activists she galvanized have grabbed headlines and TV news coverage. But her visibility has spurred an intense backlash on the right, igniting conservative talk radio, inspiring counterprotests, and fueling the Bush administration's determination to reverse public opinion.

''I think over the long haul public support is absolutely critical to the success of military operations," said Victoria Clarke, who was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's chief media adviser until the summer of 2003. ''To get and keep that kind of support, people need a comprehensive view of what the military is doing: the good stuff, the bad stuff, and the in-between stuff."

Scores of Iraqis are killed each week in insurgent violence -- attacks administration officials had hoped would abate as the country's democratic process moved forward.

According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in early August, 54 percent of Americans surveyed thought the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake. By contrast, opposition to the Vietnam War crossed the 50 percent mark in 1968 and rose to 60 percent by 1973, the same year the US withdrew its troops, according to the Gallup Poll.


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Conservatives supporting military operations in Iraq plan a five-day tour of Western cities that will end Saturday in Crawford, where about 2,000 antiwar protesters have gathered.

''There's so much negative information in the media," said Deborah Johns, a Roseville, Calif., mother of a Marine who is about to serve his third tour of duty in Iraq. ''If the building of bridges and roads and schools and power plants was portrayed in the media, it would make a huge difference. We need to stand by our men and women so they can keep their morale up."

The arrival of the war's supporters in Crawford, who are determined to offset the media's attention on Sheehan, promises to set up a high-noon-like showdown between soldiers' families.

''In both cases, you can't deny the poignancy," said Alex Bloom, a history professor at Wheaton College in Norton. ''The question is going to be, who's more compelling to the American audience?"

Johns, who is making several media appearances, called Sheehan's son, Casey, ''an American hero" and said she has invited his mother to discuss ''the best way to get the country rebuilt and get our people out sooner rather than later." She said Sheehan, who left Crawford to care for her ailing mother but is expected to return this week, has not responded.

Conservatives have blasted Sheehan for her alliance with the leftist antiwar group Moveon.org, but the conservative effort behind Johns has its own partisan history: Move America Forward, founded by Howard Kaloogian a Republican and former California assemblyman, and radio host Melanie Morgan, launched the successful 2003 campaign to recall Governor Gray Davis of California, a Democrat. The group has also vigorously backed Bush's controversial selection of John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations, calling him a leader who can stand up to the ''blame America first crowd."

The group has produced a TV commercial in which Johns declares that Sheehan ''certainly doesn't speak for me or military families or our men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan."

In Washington, the Pentagon has assigned soldiers like Seth P. Welch to seek out reporters and pitch stories about the military's accomplishments in Iraq. ''We will be the first to hear about stories and try to promote those stories," said Welch, an Army private and photojournalist. ''We have an opportunity to see if the world is interested" in what they've done.

Last year, the Army's media branch hired Crawford Communications Inc. of Atlanta to provide video footage and to coordinate interviews between soldiers and their hometown news outlets to blunt the bad news that leads national newscasts and makes headlines in big-city newspapers.

In his speech to veterans yesterday, Bush declined to give a time frame for the US presence in Iraq, but said the insurgent attacks would not force the United States and its forces to leave before the job is finished.

''They have a strategy, and part of that strategy is they're trying to shake our will," Bush said.

''Their goal," he added, ''is to drive nations into retreat so they can topple governments across the Middle East, establish Taliban-like regimes, and turn that region into a launching pad for more attacks against our people."

Several blocks away from the arena where Bush spoke, hundreds of antiwar protesters rallied in Pioneer Park. Tomorrow, when Bush visits Idaho, protesters in Boise will dedicate a memorial to the war dead. Sheehan and her supporters also are behind a TV advertisement that has run in Salt Lake City and in Waco, Texas.

But the White House brushed off the protests and Sheehan's demands to meet with the president.

''He can understand that people don't share his view that we must win the war on terror, and we cannot retreat and cut and run from terrorists," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. ''He believes that people have a fundamental right to express their views. That's one of the reasons we're fighting this war on terrorism, to protect our fundamental rights. But at the same time, he disagrees strongly."

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican who traveled to his home state with Bush for the speech, attributed the poor public opinion of the Iraq war to news reports he said consistently neglect US achievements.

''The media have been pretty negative about the war. If you talk to the troops on the ground, you get a far different picture," Hatch told reporters traveling with Bush. ''We know the president is doing what is right."


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