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Originally published Sunday, August 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Leonard Pitts Jr. / Syndicated columnist

It's about time somebody asked Cindy Sheehan's question

"I want to ask George Bush: Why did my son die? " — Cindy SheehanCindy Sheehan will get her wish to meet with President Bush the day...

"I want to ask George Bush: Why did my son die?"

— Cindy Sheehan

Cindy Sheehan will get her wish to meet with President Bush the day winged donkeys perform an air show in the skies above the South Lawn. In other words, never.

In part this is because the president is famously intolerant of criticism and notoriously fumble-tongued when working without a script, so his handlers would rather chew glass than send him out to confront an angry protester who knows exactly what she believes and why.

It is also because no president can afford to be seen as having been bullied into doing something. So Sheehan's vigil near the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch is likely to continue until the end of Bush's extended vacation without reaching resolution.

Unless you count embarrassing a president who badly needed embarrassing. In which case, Sheehan's demand for a meeting has already been a smashing success.

This is largely because Sheehan has one quality most protesters lack: moral authority. Her 24-year-old son, Casey, was killed in Baghdad last year. So it's hard for the attack dogs of the Republican right to go after her with the smear-the-messenger vitriol they usually unleash when someone says heretical things about the great and powerful Bush.

Not that they haven't given it the old school try. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News derides her as a political operative. Rush Limbaugh says her story is not "real." Some critics observe that Sheehan's protest has driven her and her husband apart.

Others note that she has already met with Bush. He spoke with her and members of other grieving families in June of last year, after which she described his demeanor as respectful. She now says he acted as if he were at a party.

Sheehan has explained the discrepancy by saying that when she met the president, she was still in "shock" over her son's death and that her anger has grown over the intervening year as evidence mounts that there never were any weapons of mass destruction and that Bush was fixated on attacking Iraq almost from the moment he took office.

Meantime, the president has mounted a belated counteroffensive, insisting in recent speeches that while he respects Sheehan's grief and her right to protest, she is wrong to oppose his war. For good measure, he trots out yet again the specter of a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. This connection exists only in his mind.

It would all be the same old song, except for the way Sheehan's protest has galvanized opponents of the war, giving face and voice to their gnawing anger over a costly conflict whose resemblance to Vietnam is becoming inescapable. They have coalesced around her with an alacrity suggesting a movement that had only been waiting for a leader. What began as a mother's lonely protest has become a well-funded encampment to which celebrities, publicists, ordinary citizens and, yes, representatives of the extreme left, have gathered eagerly.

It's a lot of sound and fury, but to find the significance, you have to go back to the question Sheehan wants to put to the president. And to recent polls indicating that more and more of us are beginning to ask the same thing.

Not just why did her son die, but why have more than 1,860 American sons and daughters died? Why have 14,000 more been injured? Why have an untold number of Iraqis also been killed and wounded? To find weapons of mass destruction? To liberate an oppressed people? To fight the war on terror? Some other of the shifting rationales that sound so tinny as the casualty count rises like floodwater?

Or, was it not all simply for the stubborn hubris of a man unable to admit when he has erred and the blinkered morality of a frightened nation unwilling to call him on it?

It's good that Cindy Sheehan is asking questions. But what's it tell you that until now, so many of us did not?

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: lpitts@herald.com

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