Cindy Sheehan announced her departure from the American public sphere last week, and the loss of her voice touched me deeply.
I am saddened for her personally, for few have sacrificed so much for their country, with so little to show for it. She gave her son, Casey, for George Bush's war in Iraq. Then she spent the next three years giving up her health, her marriage, the full-time parenting of her surviving children, and every ounce of her time and energy - all to prevent other mothers from suffering the same fate.
Arguably, she has nothing to show for her sacrifices other than the scorn of America's rabid right, most of whom somehow never seem to show up themselves when there is fighting to be done abroad. That plus another hole in her heart, to match the one left by the waste of her son's life.
To read Sheehan's farewell letter is to realize that she now also mourns another death along with Casey's, that of America as the country she and so many others of us grew up believing in.
Most Americans know of Sheehan from the stand she took outside Bush's vacation ranch in Crawford, asking only that he meet with her. The sheer courage and simplicity of that act made for a compelling David versus Goliath story that few could not find inherently sympathetic.
Which is precisely why it drove conservative pundits ballistic, and why they launched their vitriolic personal attacks against her, just as they have with every other one of their critics or political adversaries. To observe the savaging of a mother who had given her son for this country, because she dared to ask inconvenient questions, was perhaps the greatest shame of all in an epoch of one astonishing political disgrace after another.
But that is precisely what happened. Fred Barnes said, "She's a crackpot". Michelle Malkin had the audacity to claim that Casey wouldn't approve of "his mother's crazy accusations". And there were much, much worse, and far, far more personal attacks beyond these.
Not to mention hypocrisy. Today, the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with three fundamental propositions about Iraq: that we were lied into the war, that we are failing there, and that Americans should be coming home. Today, Bill O'Reilly says "It was the wrong battlefield. It was. And there's no getting around that. We made a mistake."
Leaving aside the known fact, based in documentary evidence, that it was no "mistake" at all, this is the same O'Reilly who only a few years ago argued that Cindy Sheehan - then making essentially the same arguments he makes today - was "in bed with the radical left", that "this kind of behavior borders on treasonous" and that she was linked to "people who hate this government, hate their country".
Are you not now also a traitor then, Bill?
And what does it say of America that the president couldn't meet with her, couldn't address her questions, couldn't risk exposure of his deceits, couldn't argue the virtues of his own policy? And what does it say of Americans that we weren't universally enraged at this? And that we weren't universally disgusted at the visage of the most powerful man in the world cowering in his ranch home behind an army of Secret Service agents, desperately hiding from an ordinary American mother standing out in the sun holding a sign?
Actually, though many people don't know it, Cindy Sheehan did meet with George W. Bush once.
Even more harrowing than the meeting they didn't have, is the one they did. It came in the wake of Casey's death, back when Sheehan was still on board with the administration's propaganda program. That would soon change. To read Cindy's description of that encounter between her family and George Bush is to come face to face with the numbing depth of his heartlessness.
Bush came bounding into the meeting, all full of frat-boy ebullience. An astonished Sheehan family watched as he glibly blurted, "So who are we honoring here?" and repeatedly referred to Cindy as "Mom". As if that weren't contemptuously disrespectful enough, Bush hadn't bothered to learn Casey's name. When the family tried to show him pictures of this fallen soldier - the very kind of person the president loves to refer to as a hero in the abstraction of countless photo-ops - he refused to look. Faced with the real grief of real people, he then demonstrated the same cut-and-run tactic for which he is so fond of excoriating others for using in trying to clean up his mess in Baghdad.
If this man has a heart, and if he cares about the damage he has wrought in the hearts of others, he surely hid it well that day.
But on this day - today - as the American disaster in Iraq descends into further chaos, as it lasts longer than our involvement in World War Two, and as even conservative scholars now refer to it as the worst foreign policy blunder in our long history, Mr. Bush's war takes another bloody toll at home as well, ripping a gash in the fabric of our national soul.
For, while I like to think Cindy's work will someday pay handsome dividends of revived sanity in America, in the short term what I see is that Casey is gone, Cindy is gone home, and George and Bill remain.
Maybe this was once the land of the free and the home of brave, perhaps way back in the olden times of the twentieth century. But right now the free are at home with their wide-screen TVs and the brave are retiring from the field, exhausted and disgusted.
If that isn't the perfect formula for national decline, I don't know what is.