WASHINGTON — They are an unlikely couple. She, an exhausted and emotionally spent woman limping home to find solace in a measure of solitude she could have given herself long ago. He, an upbeat and oh-so-confident man who once was down but is now anything but out.

Antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan has announced her “retirement” as an icon of the movement against the Iraq war, a conflict that took the life of her son, Casey, and catapulted Sheehan into a chaotic and often cruel journey through the ugly precincts of political activism in the age of Bush.

Al Gore has launched another book, “The Assault on Reason.” In it he indulges his penchant for intellectualism alongside his utter horror at the degradation of politics and the destructive policies he lays at the White House door. These have their roots, Gore argues, in the deceits and manipulations President Bush and his administration practiced, artfully and dangerously, for too long and with too little consequence.

Besides their opposition to the Iraq misadventure, the two have little in common, other than having borne the contempt of a media culture that finds them easy targets for ridicule. Now they return the sentiment.

The media turned its gaze on Sheehan when she launched vigils along the dusty road leading to Bush’s vacation ranch in Crawford, Texas. For a time back in August of 2005, she was a serendipitous gift to reporters during the slow-news days of summer. You couldn’t conjure up a better story than that of a grieving mother braving heat and all manner of other indignities to confront the president whose war had taken her son’s life. The “Camp Casey” drama was one of the first public manifestations of what hadn’t fully emerged yet as a deepening of public dissatisfaction over Iraq. Sheehan was an overnight celebrity.

So the right-wing chorus immediately smeared her. Sheehan was part of a “psychological warfare campaign against her own country in a time of war” (conservative pundit David Horowitz). She was “the poster child for surrender” (columnist Frank J. Gaffney). Fox News talker extraordinaire Bill O’Reilly claimed that some (we don’t know which) military families felt Sheehan’s conduct “borders on treasonous.”

Nearly two years later, and after a descent into the clutch of radical politics, Sheehan’s “resignation” letter lashes out equally at left-wing commentators who she says heaped the same abuse upon her once she held the Democratic Party to account for its role in sustaining the war. Sheehan’s letter is a rambling account of her journey to disillusion. But amid the pain is a truth that has no ideology: “Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months. … “

It is a complaint I’ve heard from returning Iraq veterans, who are astonished at the trivial info-tainment that passes for news at home. It is echoed by Gore, who laments in his book that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse.”

Starting with the O.J. Simpson trial, Gore recites the “serial obsessions” that dominate coverage — and so help define what the public thinks is important. You know their names: JonBenet and the “Runaway Bride,” Natalie Holloway and Michael Jackson. “And of course,” Gore writes, “we can’t forget Britney and KFed and Lindsay and Paris and Nicole.” While these noisy psychodramas got saturation coverage, Gore says, “our nation was in the process of more quietly making what future historians will certainly describe as a series of catastrophically mistaken decisions” on war and peace, climate change and other issues.

Gore, the scold, is a familiar character in his own political saga — the same fellow who was ridiculed for sighing audibly during a 2000 presidential campaign debate. But, like Sheehan, he speaks a truth: The country didn’t make so many bad decisions — about Iraq, global warming, torture or the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists — in the absence of information about these policies and their historic consequences. It ignored what information was available.

For this “absence of reason” Gore offers no antidote — nor does anyone. He suggests that more political discourse be conducted over the Internet, which happens to be where some of the vilest commentary and wildest conspiracy theories circulate. Eventually these peculiar dark ages will end. We can only hope historians see them as an aberration, not an early marker of decline.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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