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Git along home, Cindy, Cindy

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So long, Cindy Sheehan. Too bad. In the world of politics, you could have been a contender.

But not now.

Sheehan is the aggrieved mother who lost a son to the Iraq war, then camped out near President Bush's ranch in Texas looking for a chance to ask him "why?" More than a media circus, her story tugged at the deepest feelings of the nation. The loss of a child is one of the greatest of tragedies. And losing one in a controversial war is doubly hard. People from California to Connecticut were touched by her grief. That will never change. What will change is Sheehan's image. Her access to the heartstrings of the United States gave her credibility and a forum for her views.

Then came "the photo."

Americans are a forgiving lot. But going to a foreign country — especially the country of a Communist thug — and running down the red, white and blue during war time is not an easy error to wink at. And the photograph of a beaming Sheehan giving a "thumbs up" signal while huddled beneath the arm of Hugo Chavez has probably sunk any aspirations she may have had to run for national office.

It was, in effect, a breathtaking gaffe. Everyone knows — or should know — how Jane Fonda has struggled for 40 years to live down the image of her smiling atop a Vietcong anti-aircraft gun. Sheehan's picture pushes the same buttons.

The moment the photo — by Francisco Batista of the Associated Press — hit the wire, it had an iconic quality. Like the shot of Bill Clinton wagging his finger at the camera or the image of model Kate Moss taking a hit of cocaine, the feeling was that an impression had been set in lead.

Today, Cindy Sheehan must be asking what happened? She may back-pedal. She may try to explain the context of the photo and angrily disavow any sympathy for the tinhorn tyrant, Chavez. But it will likely be to little avail. That giant sucking sound you hear is Cindy Sheehan's reputation going south.

Free speech is one thing. Standing in the arms of a hated dictator and ridiculing your homeland is another.

Jane Fonda learned that lesson the hard way. Harry Belafonte is learning it now. Cindy Sheehan will now be learning it.

Sheehan took her battle one bridge too far. When the time came for her close-up, she chose the wrong pose. And in her case, one photo is not only worth a thousand words, it will now likely be worth more than a thousand nights camped out in the president's back yard.