America - Andrew Stephen spoils Bush's fun

The lasting image of Bush during the summer has been that of an uncaring president who has been idly

First of it all, it is not a "ranch", any more than the Kennedy family houses in Hyannis Port or Palm Beach were ever "compounds". Yet we are always being told that President Bush is spending time at his "Texas ranch" - a characteristically self-deluding media myth, given that his two Scottish terriers comprise just about the only livestock at his thoroughly comfortable and modern home there. The White House claims that there are also "four or five" cattle at Crawford that were given to Bush as ceremonial gifts, though I can find nobody who has ever actually seen them.

Now that Washington is going back to work and Bush was forced by Hurricane Katrina to head back early to the White House - the official end of summer came a week later than in England - I suspect that we will look back on these past two months as the apotheosis of the Bush presidency. Bush has spent 339 days relaxing in Texas since becoming president in 2001, and it has been a running silly-season story this year that he has been riding his $3,000 Trek Fuel mountain bike or reading books such as Edvard Radzinsky's Alexander II: the last great tsar (very likely, that one).

But this summer the name of Cindy Sheehan, 48, has also kept dogging Bush. The world now knows that her son Casey was killed at the age of 24 in Iraq last year - and that Bush refused to meet her last month when she set up camp outside his "ranch". For Bush, it was a silly-season story that just would not go away, partly because Sheehan is not a typical bereaved soldier's mother but a middle-class woman who is being advised by a big-time advertising agency called Fenton Communications. The pliant media have taken notice of her, and the story of her personal tragedy has entered the consciousness of the nation and become a symbolic watershed for it.

The result is that the lasting image of Bush during the summer, fairly or unfairly, has been that of a personally uncaring president who has been idly biking - I can't see him fiddling, somehow - while Iraq burns. A poll out last Tuesday showed that a majority of Americans support Sheehan, despite attempts by the right-wing media to trash her character; that they disapprove of the Iraq adventure by 58 to 37 per cent; and that Bush's personal approval ratings have fallen to their lowest ever and are now at just 36 per cent. One right-wing friend has even confided to me that he believes Bush will go down in history as a Warren Harding, widely believed to have been the worst US president ever.

In the meantime, the death toll of US soldiers in Iraq is poised to pass the 2,000 mark. Senator Chuck Hagel - a Vietnam veteran and outside contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination - has publicly likened the Iraq quagmire to that of Vietnam. And that old doomsday merchant himself, Henry Kissinger, is also abandoning the sinking ship, warning that "military success is difficult to sustain unless buttressed by domestic support".

Though Bush is increasingly isolated within his own coterie, even he is being forced to attempt to rehabilitate his Iraq policy with a PR offensive. He interrupted his hallowed five-week vacation to travel to Utah and Idaho to try to rally support, and, with one of his administration's most cynical PR ploys yet, trotted out a rival military mother to Sheehan - one Tammy Pruett, whose husband and five sons have been serving in Iraq but who still supports the war.

This month the administration will attempt to resuscitate its Iraq policy, too: it is planning a "Freedom Walk" from the Pentagon to the Mall on 11 September, as part of its ever more desperate attempts to link the 11 September 2001 atrocities with Iraq in the public perception. Yet even this notion is fading; the Washington Post, sensing the mounting Vietnam-like political dissension, has withdrawn its co-sponsorship of the event, which the administration intended would be portrayed as non-partisan.

Thus the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon, ephemeral though her name may prove to be, is one that somehow found its time. In the 20th century, men spearheaded the anti-Vietnam movement. Today, it is a woman - a generation later, the power of a soccer mum personified - whose name is mobilising public opinion against what is happening in Iraq. It has so far triggered 1,600 candlelit vigils as well as a major anti-war demonstration, planned for Washington over the weekend of 24-26 September.

Bush will doubtless remain imperious and in isolation, but others in his administration are getting edgy. Donald Rumsfeld says testily that "throughout history [sic] there have always been those who predict America's failure just around the corner" - and likens the anti-war protesters of today to "western intellectuals" who supported Stalin "at the height of World War II".

But the country is beginning to see such desperate bluster for what it is.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Ground zilch: how Al-Qaeda defeated New York