Cindy Sheehan Is Not First to Crowd a President

Aug. 4 (Bloomberg) — George W. Bush plans to spend less time than usual at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, this August. And no wonder. The president had been looking forward to a quiet holiday.

Now the Associated Press has reported that peace protester Cindy Sheehan has purchased, through an intermediary, five acres of land in Crawford. The space is more than large enough for planned activities and a tent for Sheehan's raucous crowd. The property is just a few hundred yards from the "Welcome to Crawford" sign that features a picture of Bush.

Last year, Sheehan was able to attract 10,000 demonstrators to Crawford to challenge the president on the question of whether the U.S. should be fighting in Iraq. As a mother of a soldier who died in the war, she commands respect. Maybe now, with her own five-acre base, she will draw even more.

Bush isn't the first president to discover a protester impinging on his holiday space. In the late 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt found an opponent more powerful than Sheehan intruding at his family retreat in Hyde Park, New York. The Bush and Roosevelt examples seem different. But they are similar in surprising ways that tell us something about American politics.

Roosevelt's Cindy was a black leader from Harlem who called himself Father Divine. Father Divine was truly hokey — he demanded his followers give his advisers all their cash, he told people he was God, and he often ran into trouble with the law.

Still, thousands did follow him, calling themselves his "angels" and singing long into the night at his musical prayer sessions. And there were a number of things Father Divine did that were deeply impressive.

Father Divine's Crusade

At a time when many black migrants were illiterate and few had a trade, he insisted his angels acquire formal education. He helped them find work during the Great Depression, and bought them houses to live in. He fought for racial integration. Like Sheehan, he was a peace activist, opposing U.S. involvement in Europe.

Most importantly, Father Divine crusaded against a great injustice, the lynching that was still taking place in the South of the 1930s. Blacks, reasonably enough, had trouble understanding how the same New Dealers who wrote so many progressive laws couldn't pass one to stop vigilantes from murdering their people. Though Roosevelt was so powerful he was known by blacks and whites as the Great White Father, his approach on race was frustratingly gradualist.

Father Divine, like Sheehan, first tried conventional forms of protest. He wrote to Roosevelt, asking for explicit support for anti-lynching legislation. Roosevelt deplored lynching, but he didn't fight in Congress for a strong new law.

Krum Elbow

In 1936, Roosevelt, like Bush, won a second term. And Father Divine then began, like Sheehan, to try out more radical ways of getting the president's attention. In the spring of 1938, Southern Democrats filibustered and successfully blocked anti-lynching legislation.

That July, Roosevelt was looking forward to spending time at Hyde Park. There he often saw his mother, Sara Roosevelt, every bit as strong a character as Barbara Bush. And there he reconnected with his Dutch roots. He liked to refer to his spot on the Hudson as Krum Elbow, the Dutch name for that particular bend in the river.

The August rest would be especially welcome because the coming autumn would involve hard campaigning. The sixth year of a presidency isn't a good one for the president's party. The Democrats then, like Bush's Republicans today, knew they were likely to do poorly in midterm elections.

Journalist Attention

It was now that Father Divine deployed the ultimate protester's weapon, real estate. Just as he was heading into his holiday, Roosevelt learned that Father Divine had purchased an estate of several hundred acres directly across the Hudson from the Roosevelt property.

What's more, the estate that Father Divine bought was also known as "Krum Elbow." Some 3,000 angels would occupy 27 buildings and host large gatherings there. They would ride up the Hudson in musical flotillas. Now Roosevelt, like Bush, couldn't ignore the protester or his cause.

Journalists played up Father Divine's move, much as they highlighted Sheehan's property acquisition. One cartoonist drew a mock map of the Hudson, labeling the two opposing headquarters of "Father Divine" and "The Great White Father."

Roosevelt, to his credit, was gracious. His wife Eleanor wrote in her column that "it is pleasant to know that the place will be 'heaven' to some people." Then Father Divine struck again, announcing he wanted to buy more. And this time his target property was right next door to the Roosevelts: the old Vanderbilt estate.

Public Park

The prospect of a singing protest movement within earshot was too much for Roosevelt. He had Eleanor write to Father Divine that "there can be no reason against any citizen of our country buying such property as he wishes to acquire." The letter went on, the property was a special one: certain rare trees grew there. The Roosevelts therefore thought the estate ought to be a public park or arboretum — and shortly arranged that it become one. Father Divine was shut out.

Plenty of people would take different positions on Sheehan and Father Divine. Many who disagree with Sheehan and support Bush in the Iraq War would have sided with Father Divine on the urgency of stopping lynching.

Yet the two protesting figures are alike in that their topics — murderous racism or war — are ones that concern Americans all year round. Leaders may long for a break. But when an issue is hot, the first thing to be sacrificed is the presidential vacation.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2006 Bloomberg

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