New York -- CAN ANYONE recall a disappearance more precipitous than that of the national celebration of Desert Storm, last winter's great victory in the Persian Gulf -- the war whose fighting men and women, unlike those of Vietnam, were to be honored and remembered?
HTC The honors, like yellow ribbons, quickly came and went. The remembrance of the war, as evidenced by polls and public statements, has been equally short-lived, and soured by the survival of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
President Bush's popularity, meanwhile, has gone south just as swiftly. The astronomical approval ratings he registered during and after the war -- around 90 percent in some cases -- have slipped to as low as 47 percent in a recent ABC News/Washington Post Poll. He's back to roughly the level of approval he had in 1989, in the midst of that year's "budget crisis," before the war made him look briefly Churchillian.
The best evidence of Bush's decline in public esteem may be his plaintive remarks the other day about the "filth and indecent material coming in through the airwaves and through these trials into people's homes." The obvious reference to the Palm Beach rape case might have been taken as merely a political slap at the Kennedy family, had the president not also criticized New York City's program to counter AIDS with free condoms for young people and clean needles for drug addicts.
AIDS, Bush chirped, "is a disease that for the most part can be controlled by individual behavior."
That's the Bushspeak equivalent of Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign, which didn't work either. Bush seemed to be turning to a tried-and-true, if threadbare, political remedy -- attacking a straw man, in this case indecency, to deflect attention from his lack of a coherent economic program and from foreign policies that look less effective every day.
Social concerns -- flag-burning, the Pledge of Allegiance, "family values," fear of crime -- have been highly effective for him and for other Republicans in the past; remember the Mapplethorpe flap? Maybe this time preaching against "smut and filth" can do the trick for Bush.
Or maybe not. The economy is in bad shape and Republicans, as well as too many Democrats, have locked themselves into the nearly theological position that nothing can be done if it increases the budget deficit -- though the likelihood is that nothing effective can be done if it doesn't increase the budget deficit. More than at any time in the past quarter-century, the so-called "pocketbook issue" may be helping the Democrats -- assuming they find a presentable candidate for president.
But the economy alone is not responsible for Bush's tumble from grace. His response to political and economic chaos in the former Soviet Union may be properly restrained, but to much of the public it looks like indecisive hand-wringing about one of the signal developments of the 20th century.
Nor does the administration appear to know how to be helpful on the economic and other problems of Eastern Europe -- for instance, street crime, the stepchild of capitalism. It's up fivefold in Prague since communism's collapse.
Japan and Western Europe go their ways, Washington notwithstanding. The nasty war in Yugoslavia is a bad advertisement for the "new world order" Bush proclaimed last winter; but there's little he can do about it, since the use of U.S. military power there would be unpopular among Americans. In all these cases, in fact, the power at Bush's disposal is mostly military; but in none would that power be appropriate or feasible.
Force might be both in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein's nuclear designs seem clear and his brutal control appears unaffected by what the world thought was catastrophic defeat. But it would be an admission of an early and mistaken end to the war, hence a smudge on his most acclaimed achievement, were Bush to order troops back to the gulf to finish the job. Nor is it clear that this time he'd have worldwide support.
Both at home and abroad, therefore, challenge and change are demanding more of George Bush -- vision, bold leadership, intuitive understanding -- than he seems able to give. Nearly a year after Desert Storm, his moment of glory seems far in the past, and irrelevant to a future in which standing tall will rarely be sufficient.
Tom Wicker is a New York Times columnist.