To return to America after an absence of six months is to find a nation sobered by reality. The reality of debt and lost jobs. The reality of rising China. Above all, the reality of Iraq.
This new sobriety was exemplified by President Bush's speech at Fort Bragg on Tuesday night. Beforehand, as the camera panned across row upon row of soldiers in red berets, the television commentator warned us that the speech might last a long time, since it was likely to be interrupted by numerous rounds of heartfelt applause from this loyal military audience. In fact, the audience interrupted him with applause just once. [Ed: Led by Bush staffers]
Once! Lines that during last autumn's election rallies drummed up a certain storm ("We will not allow our future to be determined by car bombers and assassins") were now met with a deafening silence. Stolidly they sat, the serried soldiers, clean-shaven, square-jawed, looking slightly bored and, in at least one case that I spotted, rhythmically chewing gum.
Bush ploughed on with his sober, rather wooden speech, wearing that curious, rigid half-smile of his, with the mouth turning down rather than up at each end. A demi-rictus. The eerie silence made him look, at moments, like a stand-up comic whose jokes were falling flat; but of course this was no laughing matter.
But then perhaps soldiers who actually risk their lives for Bush's policies in Iraq, and have lost comrades there, would not have been in a great mood to applaud anyway. Afterwards, as he mingled with the troops in the hall, their faces showed little more than mild curiosity at the prospect of meeting their commander-in-chief.
Bush's Fort Bragg speech once again presented Iraq as part of the global war on terror - the Gwot. He mentioned the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks five times; weapons of mass destruction not once. Then he made this extraordinary statement: "To complete the mission, we will prevent al-Qaida and other foreign terrorists from turning Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban - a safe haven from which they could launch attacks on America and our friends."
This is like a man who shoots himself in the foot and then says: "We must prevent it turning gangrenous, then you'll understand why I was right to shoot myself in the foot."
In short, whether or not the invasion of Iraq was a crime, it's now clear that - at least in the form in which the invasion and occupation was executed by the Bush administration - it was a massive blunder. And the American people are beginning to see this.
Contrary to what many Europeans believe, you can fool some of the Americans all of the time, and all of the Americans some of the time, but you can't fool most Americans most of the time - even with the help of Fox News. Reality gets through. Hence the new sobriety.