Open Letter to Cindy Sheehan

Dear Cindy,

I write as a strong supporter of your candidacy and someone who has
profound admiration for the work you have done. That said, I want to
attempt something uncomfortable which is to make a constructive
criticism of your campaign for Congress. I’m doing so based on the
firm conviction that you can move beyond being a strong protest
candidate-you are already that-to become a legitimate contender for
Pelosi’s seat. I am optimistic on this score because I know the facts-
among them, that Matt Gonzalez almost won a majority of votes in your
district against Pelosi’s handpicked candidate in his mayoral
campaign. As you know, there is also widespread disaffection with
Pelosi, not just limited to the left fringe, but among what should be
her core constituency.

For you to take advantage of these openings you must be perceived not
as a fringe candidate but as a serious candidate. This does not mean
that you need to dilute your message or alter your positions or
beliefs in any way. Rather, it means that you need to find ways of
expressing them so that the mainstream voters in San Francisco will
not be able to write them off on superficial grounds which the media
has, that is, as the rantings of a grieving mother and the band of
malcontents supporting her.

Make no mistake, your office should be producing a constant stream of
press releases, op eds, and open letters, as you are doing. When
these are picked up, even by small local media outlets and websites,
they provide your campaign with the exposure required for your
campaign to become competitive. However, when these give any
indication of amateurishness, they significantly undermine your
campaign and this is particularly the case in San Francisco where
voters tend to be extremely literate and well, indeed overly, educated.

To give an idea of what I’m talking about I’ll focus on today’s
Dissident Voice article “Accountability Now”. The first sentence
reads as follows: “The U.S. House of Representatives under the so-
called leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-SF) is failing We the
People at an alarming rate.” In addition to it sounding a bit
contrived in this context, “We” functions as the subject, not the
object pronoun, so the sentence is technically ungrammatical. Also,
“at an alarming rate” is an awkward adverbial complement to “fail”;
(as an indication, one can’t “fail quickly”). Finally, while it is
clear what you have in mind by “so-called leadership” the expression
comes across as flippant coming from the new congresswoman from the
eighth district. Correcting these problems you could try something
like “The U.S. House of Representatives under the weak leadership of
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-SF) is undermining the trust of the nation,
the State of California and Pelosi’s constituents in the City of San

I hope you understand that I do not bring up these faults because
they are at all important to me, but rather because many people,
among them your potential constituents, consider them important.
They have, moreover, a rational basis in that they expect their
representatives to have the ability to represent them with real
authority. Part of this authority is derived from the ability to
deploy written language which commands respect. When one is
preaching to the converted on fringe websites like Dissident Voice,
this doesn’t matter. When one is attempting to operate in the public
sphere it very much does matter.

I should make clear that in no way is it required for you to develop
the skills necessary to produce the kind of copy which should be
consistently coming out of your office. I have no doubt that few
members of congress are, in fact, able to do so. Rather they leave
this to their staff people, who, having benefitted from long and
expensive educations have the ability to polish the turds produced by
their bosses to a blindingly metallic sheen.

What this means is that you need to hire staffers who are capable of
doing precisely that-except that your positions don’t require
exercises in rhetorical slight-of-hand to make them compelling. All
that is required are clear statements of common sense. While these
sorts of folks do not grow on trees, and there are fewer on the left
than one might hope, they are around. In fact, you could do worse
than make an offer to the editors of this site, Josh and Sunil, both
of whom are superbly clear and eloquent writers. Of course, their
positions will need to be financed but I can assure you they will
quickly pay for themselves.

That’s because there are more than a few progressives who are waiting
to see whether your campaign is serious in the same way as Matt
Gonzalez’s campaign was-serious as the proverbial heart attack.
When you show that it has the potential to become legitimate, that
will be Pelosi’s worst nightmare, and the support, which I’m sure is
already there will come rolling in, not just from me, but from the
huge numbers of us who are desperate for a real viable alternative to
the perpetual war, lies and indecency which define the Democratic
Party as personified by Pelosi.


John Halle

John Halle is a Professor at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and former Green Party Alderman from New Haven's Ninth Ward. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. A Mohit said on February 15th, 2008 at 10:31am #

    I can see that John is a true friend of yours who wants your success. Please pay attention to his positive criticism, which I think brings excellent points forward.

    If possible please get in touch with him and get his help. I truly want your success, because that would make a huge difference to the politics of this country, and in turn the World.

  2. Eddie said on February 15th, 2008 at 11:19am #

    Keep being real. The professor belongs on Gilligan’s Island.

  3. Robert B. Livingston said on February 15th, 2008 at 12:08pm #

    This is an interesting letter– and very intimidating… how to begin without making a gaffe (public school education)… at this… er… is it? fringe website?

    Having attended Cindy Sheehan volunteer sessions I can attest that Cindy, her staff, and volunteers are very concerned about making a good impression– and they all know good grammar helps!

    I love the idea of Joshua Frank and Sunil K. Sharma helping out– but I wonder how they would feel about it? They are true independents who I respect for their radical non-partisanship. Maybe the fact that they published this letter is in the spirit of productive investigation.

    As to Cindy’s image:

    She is notorious for dressing as she likes. She is not about to be “imaged”. She is about the truth, and the greater part of the truth is to be oneself.

    I know that doesn’t always sit well with many of us. I will never forget how Matt Gonzalez broadened his constituency after the former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos gave him a suit to wear. But I suspect he wore it not to win votes, but out of kindness and respect.

    I expect Cindy to change as her political campaign evolves: but it will likely be on her own terms in ways that will not dilute her integrity. I love Cindy’s missives because they are clear and to the point. In them, even with their trivial errors and occasional awkwardness, one gets a clear picture of the real Cindy. She’s not perfect– but she is us! She has a heart, and a will, and a real anger against the Destroyers that are running our country.

    I still get mail from Nancy Pelosi, and I can’t tell the difference whether her correspondence was written by a human or a fax machine. But I can guarantee without searching that they are all probably 100% glitch free. Slick. And so much trivia, half-truths, and out-and-out lies!

    Cindy Sheehan does indeed need to break out of being pigeonholed as a “fringe” candidate. But rather than blame her, I blame the establishment media and Democratic Party operatives who are upset that she discovered their complicity with the Washington Consensus — including publications like Mother Jones which purport to tell the truth with “attitude”.

    Read this, and you should see what I mean. (MJ censored my comment.)

    (Incidentally while the prose and grammar in the Mother Jones article is scintillating– I call it an evil hit piece. So much smoke: talk of a “New Guard” and an “Old Left”…”reverse Joe Liebermans”… ending a war “by procedural fiat”… advice from a Howard Zinn detractor… the inserted gem that it was an antiwar missive from Nancy Pelosi herself that was the source of Medea Benjamin’s inspiration to sick Code Pink on her… a description that Cindy is a poor girl infatuated with attention… echoes of Rush Limbaugh… caricatures of San Francisco’s loony left including a gratuitous mention of the nobody Chicken John, the guy, possibly a set-up to dilute votes, who pretended to run against Nancy Pelosi’s cousin, Gavin the Groomed…. And the article includes only a shadowy skeleton explanation of what Cindy is fighting for: like bringing our troops home now, like impeachment, and integrity in government where people come first! Instead the article begins by saying that Cindy wants to “nudge Pelosi out of Iraq”– why not the U.S. out of Iraq? Further, Cindy has many supporters from all walks of life– especially retired elders, small business owners, military veterans, working folks, and church-goers: all taboo. Bring on the Raging Grannies!)

    Cindy Sheehan’s campaign staff, to their credit, has put the link to the Mother Jones article on its campaign website press page. They know they are starved for news in the mainstream and almost anything is better than nothing. They know that people looking for the truth will find it– in spite of the world of lies that are spun around her and her courageous independent and boot-strap campaign.

    And if you think Free Press will come to her defense because of the intentional media blackout… think again. I am convinced that it, like many other NGOs have strict protocols to insure that their bread stays buttered. Why else its feeble support for Pelosi (and Kerry, the token) who promise to challenge the telecommunications industry– after the Senate passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2007 (Obama and Clinton not voting).

    Such bull!

    This nation is blind and an insistence on dotting every eye… oops!… “i”… and crossing every “t” is as ridiculous to me as those unfathomable pink Burger King crowns that the CodePink ladies (who I adore) insist on wearing.

    If we are not smart enough to get the message that is written on the wall, God help us!

  4. r gaylor said on February 15th, 2008 at 12:14pm #

    Dissatisfaction with Pelosi … the engine that drives the hope that Obama may be an alternative to the fact that no matter who we are as members of the electorate there is no one who speaks for us … unless we are hanging on the hind tit … sucking out whatever juice we can. The fact is that politics has reched such a nadir that someone like Pelosi is presumed to be a leader.

    Sheehan won’t survive … but maybe if she is elected a signal of sorts will have been sent.


  5. Eric Patton said on February 15th, 2008 at 12:16pm #

    Correcting her grammar? You’re kidding. Unless you think we should be organizing doctors, lawyers, managers, and engineers — instead of truck drivers, factory workers, janitors, and store clerks.

    THAT IS (you know, i.e.?), should we be organizing the coordinator class … or the working class?

    Why do you think Karl Rove coached Bush to speak grammatically incorrectly? If the left isn’t interested in trying to appeal to the unwashed masses, the right will be only too happy to pay whatever lip service is necessary to do so.

  6. Hue Longer said on February 15th, 2008 at 6:22pm #

    Good point, Eric

    I suppose Cindy doesn’t have much time to respond to every bit of advice she must be getting, so doing an open letter which reaches enough whisperers who like it, begs she must spend time with it?

    I’d love to see more snide…in fact, were she to get in I’d love to see her tell a reporter or another representative to fuck off and call them a murderer. Sounds terrible or counterproductive? You should have seen Brown call Howard a hater. The liberal party in Australia tried to make him retract it and it only gave him more time to say it…some brutal honesty would tear through the veneer

  7. John Greenwood said on February 16th, 2008 at 11:37am #

    Shilling for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should help garner support and demonstrate the seriousness of her campaign.

  8. Kevin Zeese said on February 17th, 2008 at 8:31pm #

    What a strange “open letter.” Usually an open letter to a public person is to push that person to support or oppose a political matter.

    This seems more appropriate as a letter to the Sheehan campaign offereing to volunteer!

    Cindy takes “We the people” seriously — she really wants someone who represents the people of Nancy Pelosi’s district.

    Do readers think Rep. Pelosi represents the views of the people of San Francisco? I don’t.

  9. John Halle said on February 18th, 2008 at 8:07am #

    If one were not already concerned at the state of the left so-called opposition, the responses here are sufficient to drive even the most optimistic into despair.

    But one presses on: Pessimism of the intellect-optimism of the will, as Gramsci, I think it was, put it.

    The essential criticism contained in most of these is that to write clearly and intelligently is to capitulate to the values of “the coordinator class.” Note the assumptions on which this claim is based. Among them: “the unwashed masses,” as one respondent tritely puts it, a) have no appreciation for written language and b) don’t deserve representation from an official who is capable of producing coherent statements of her positions or c) don’t care.

    Aside from being shockingly condescending and offensive, those endorsing this position are simply clueless as to the demographics of San Francisco which is-earth to DV readers- among the most affluent and/or educated in the nation. Even if it were true, completely contrary to fact, that typos, spelling mistakes, and other literary forms of “keeping it real” would attract “truck drivers, factory workers and janitors” to the Sheehan campaign, there is no way that a campaign in San Francisco can succeed without the support of white collar workers at most levels of the income spectrum. To write these voters off would be senseless, though that I am perhaps giving these respondents too much credit in presuming that they actually care about mounting a serious opposition to Pelosi. More likely, it is simply a game for them, one which they don’t really care if they lose in the most humiliating circumstances.

    Equally clueless is the respondent who seem to think that Bush’s speaking style is relevant to this discussion given that it concerns written not spoken English. On this point, I challenge him or her to find a single grammatical, spelling or punctuation mistake of any consequence in documents emanating from the Bush campaign or the White House. That it is even necessary to make this observation is indicative of a level of political naivete that is indistinguishable from pathology.

    Turning to Mr. Zeese, whose work I admire, he finds it odd that I’m making these criticisms in the form of an open letter and then ends with the seeming non-sequitur: “Do readers think Rep. Pelosi represents the views of the people of San Francisco? I don’t.”

    Of course they don’t. Nor did the Clinton, Bush I, Bush II, Carter or Reagan administrations. That, in a nutshell, is the whole problem. Why is it that those assuming positions of power and authority invariably represent and answer to elites while those, like Sheehan representing the views of the great majority, are incapable of operating viable and competitive campaigns.

    While leftists might not find it attractive to look in the mirror, a good part of the answer to this question is contained in the responses above, which make for a virtual parade of leftist pathology. To quote George Orwell “is it any wonder why everyone hates us so?”

    Finally, an open response to Ms. Sheehan who wrote to me privately, based on the assumption that I am some kind of “friend” of hers. I am no friend; I, and I hope many others, am something much more valuable-namely, I am an ally. Once she begins to recognize that there is a distinction to be made between these categories, that will be an important indication that her campaign is becoming serious, though I should mention that the most recent piece posted on DV today indicates some, albeit mixed, progress along these lines.

  10. marcia schneider said on February 19th, 2008 at 10:12am #

    I would love to see what John Halle’s red pen would do to the works of William Faulkner or James Joyce! I suggest he leave the likes of Sheehan alone who actually takes seriously the disintegration of our 3-branch system and the brutality this government is dishing out over the rest of the world. Sorry no time to dress, walk, talk and schmooz to the up-scale beat. And I bet San Frans just might realize that they too have more serious issues on their agendas as well.

  11. Cynthia said on April 1st, 2008 at 4:26am #

    It’s a sorry state of affairs when people on the same side can’t accept each others’ ideas and opinions, especially when they are meant to be helpful.
    Mr. Halle provides some constructive criticism meant to help Cindy get elected and what results is a barrage of defensive criticism of him. He wasn’t criticising Cindy or anyone. He was making some valid points about how to get more votes. As long as it’s not being dishonest, why not try some of these things?
    We can always do better. One way to do better is to be open to suggestions, to listen to your customers, employees, audience– whatever. Neither Mr. Halle nor any of us want Cindy to give up her values, be someone she’s not, or to be less honest and outspoken. But it can’t hurt to allow suggestions, chew them over, and use any good ideas to help win the election.
    Well-financed candidates pay for suggestions. They hire consultants and advisors, speech writers and more, who help the candidate win. So any supportive thoughtful free advice should at least be considered and used if it’s helpful.
    For example, it’s sad but true that a professional image impresses professionals. It’s human nature– we feel most comfortable with people like ourselves. Does Cindy want the votes of professionals? If so, looking professional would help.
    The comment about Matt Gonzalez wearing a suit missed the point. It doesn’t matter whether he wore it to be kind or to get votes. When he wore it he got votes. Did he consider this “selling out?” I doubt it. IT’S JUST A SUIT! And I’m not saying Cindy needs to wear suits. What many of us are saying is that we desperately want Cindy to win, so we want to share our ideas of some smart things, some different things to get elected. Cindy should always be herself. But taking political reality into account is smart and it can mean the difference between winning and playing at winning. I do think Cindy has a good shot at this.
    I’ll take the risk of making another suggestion, even if some are opposed to making suggestions at all. I and others have talked among ourselves about Cindy getting out into the liberal and progressive communities more rather tahn spending so much time talking to the choir. She already has our votes, so wouldn’t it be wiser to go after the votes she doesn’t have but could have?
    No offense, no criticism intended. Just trying to be helpful.

  12. Dr Budd Gotlieb said on June 15th, 2008 at 11:34pm #

    I hope Cindy Sheehan beats Nancy by an overwhelming amount. We have to stop being picky and look at the larger picture and quit arguing among ourselves over NON issues. THE MAIN ISSUE IS : CAN WE EVER ACHEIVE TRUE DEMOCRACY SO THAT WE CAN HAVE A GOVERNMENT THAT REPRESENTS US ALL. WE MUST WORK FOR THE CENTRAL ISSUE AND THAT IS THE NUMBER ONE GOAL…GET CINDY SHEEHAN ELECTED AND NANCY PELOSI THROWN OUT. Then and only then can we get picky and hope to continue the dificult job of winning the “war” against war and find peace forever and learn that we are all the same …just brothers and sisters of all shades.