As metaphor, Cindy Sheehan's peaceful siege of George W. Bush's Texas ranch is pitch perfect. Like Iraq, the ranch was easy to go into. But the president pays a price either for staying or exiting while Sheehan and television cameras perch on the road outside.

Once at the ranch, Bush can hide, but he can't run.

Unfortunately, Sheehan's personal tragedy is degenerating into farce or worse. She has become a celebrity whose divorce proceedings hit the wires this week to reverberate in the great national echo chamber. That "news" was quickly topped by a barbarian driving a pickup truck through a makeshift memorial of white crosses honoring fallen soldiers in Iraq.

Sheehan may have anticipated that her family's quarrels over the meaning of her son's death in Iraq, her angry statements blaming Israel for pushing the United States into Iraq and her vituperative Web postings would become grist for the celebrity mills. If she didn't, we should feel her pain even more.

But her vigil risks becoming political theater disconnected from its larger purpose. This is an increasingly unsettling phenomenon in the Internet age, as political parties, lobby groups, the media and other institutions concentrate on spin more often than substance in politics.

Sheehan says she wants to see the president again to demand answers -- answers that she says he did not provide in their previous meeting and that she suggests, in advance, that she knows he does not have.

On that she is right: If Bush had answers on Iraq, he would shower her with them. The insufficient or partial statements he would make at this point would certainly not satisfy a woman who has already said that Bush is "spewing . . . lying filth" about Iraq to cover up a strategy of personal enrichment.

It is not so disturbing that the national political discourse has become detached from civility. That has been true, and not fatal, at other periods in American history. Moreover, this case involves a grieving mom who is entitled to vent, to petition her president publicly for redress or both.

What is disturbing is that the national political discourse is increasingly detached from reality. The emotionalism and character assassination practiced by both sides -- the clamor in the echo chamber around Sheehan is only one example -- is mistaken for "politics."

Instead of turning out more engineers or scientists, American society seems at times more geared to forming consumers, producers and critics of a particularly bombastic kind of political theater, which comes in entertainment and information flows that are increasingly hard to distinguish.

Historians will credit the New York Times with both influencing and reflecting this trend by assigning its dominant weekend political opinion space to Frank Rich, its former theater critic. If political theater's the thing, as Shakespeare might have said, who better to cast a lively if withering eye to answer the question, "How is this playing?"

Too often we now get more of our information from stories or broadcast clips about television ads on issues than stories or clips about those issues themselves. Think of John Kerry's war record, or Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts's opinions and papers. They are then followed by news stories and columns that spin the spin -- that hash out how effective, or not, the presentational values were.

Bush neither needs nor deserves defending on this score. He, too, has contributed to the national political discourse becoming more superficial, more coarse, and more driven by images and drama. That he is now hoist -- in opinion polls at least -- by the conditions he helped create at home also seems a metaphor for his dilemma in Iraq.

There the president gropes his way uncertainly through a nightmarish period in which he is necessarily a seeker rather than a provider of the answers that, in reality, only Iraqis will be able to provide for their country.

The shock-and-awe tactics of the speedy battlefield victory in Iraq created changed conditions there that the Bush team failed to perceive and to master in time. It is possible to see a parallel in his uncompromising approach to political campaigns and legislative fights at home and the plunge his standing has taken in the polls.

A vigil by a war victim's mother should be an act of devotion that transcends political theater. Bush owes Sheehan the respect of the meeting she seeks -- if she demonstrates that she will show him the respect any elected president deserves.