WASHINGTON — Michael J. Fox provides a fitting finale to a campaign season that really began with Terri Schiavo.

Video images of the perpetually youthful Fox, his body seized by the spasms of Parkinson’s disease, are as familiar to us now as the disturbing pictures of Schiavo, her big, vacant eyes searching out from her hospice bed — searching, we now know, in blindness. Rush Limbaugh’s accusation that Fox faked his symptoms had all the delicacy of the congressional attack on Schiavo’s privacy, and its collective smear of her husband, Michael.

These are media and political spectacles brought to you by that brand of conservatives whose paramount concern is what they call a “culture of life.” Their preferred tactic is a meddlesome meanness that they believe they are entitled to use in shaping the course of everyone’s life.

The purveyors of this culture find moral certainty in an astounding contradiction. They have a faith-based opposition to saving lives through the hope of stem cell research, and a faith-based opposition to ending a life that has become hopeless.

Somehow they’ve gripped the political system so firmly that Congress, along with the president, rushed back from the 2005 Easter recess to insert itself into the Schiavo family tragedy. Those who purvey the poppycock that an embryo in a laboratory dish has a humanity more valuable and worthy of concern than people like Fox have such a hold on the president of the United States that he used his first, and so far only, veto to overturn the Republican-controlled Congress’ belated decision last summer to expand funding for stem cell research.

But the Schiavo episode was a turning point. As one family’s personal tragedy was transformed into something of a horror show broadcast worldwide, the country recoiled — not from the idea of compassionately putting an end to Schiavo’s suffering, but from the sight of politicians effectively barging into her room.

The people knew, from the very start, that it was no sober discussion about the ethics involved in end-of-life decisions. A memo that originated in the office of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) trumpeted the intervention because “the pro-life base will be very excited by the issue.”

After the Schiavo episode, public approval of President Bush dipped below 50 percent for the first time and never recovered, says Derek Brown, a Florida-based political consultant who assists the political action committee set up by Michael Schiavo to support candidates who say they wouldn’t have intervened. Followed only a few months later by the government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina, Brown says he believes these two events crystallized in the public’s mind the image of a government run amok. “It basically set up the conversation for this election,” Brown says.

The undercurrent from the Schiavo controversy still flows. Last spring, I interviewed Phil Avillo, a Democrat running a decidedly uphill congressional race in a heavily Republican district in central Pennsylvania. He said that during his initial round of door-knocking, he was stunned to find Republicans who asked for tickets to his events — including one who said he’d changed his registration to Democrat because of the Schiavo matter.

Now, Avillo tells me, Schiavo still comes up occasionally. But what he hears lately as he makes the rounds is disgust at Limbaugh for disparaging Fox. “It seems to them he’s mocking a sick person,” says Avillo, who hasn’t the campaign funds to stage partisan events and spends much of his time at community forums that are open to all. “I get the sense from them that Limbaugh clearly went over the line.”

Limbaugh long ago lost any sense of decency if, indeed, it is a trait he once possessed. But his comments about Fox have the unmistakable tone of the rhetoric we hear from those who are certain that their moral view is superior to scientific consensus — and so must be adopted as public policy. It has the ring of the fake diagnoses of Schiavo that were made in the chambers of the Capitol, by no less a figure than Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist. The grotesque fallacies were exposed by an autopsy that revealed Schiavo was in much worse condition than her doctors had concluded.

The same reliance on ideological fantasy is at the root of the disaster in Iraq. If there is one thing we should be voting for next week, it is for a government that will be guided by fact, not fiction.

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

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