The ineffable good luck of George W. Bush seems to be faltering at last. The man became President by an electoral accident that resembled theft. His stock was sinking, his agenda stalled, when the tragedy of September 11 suddenly gave higher purpose to his Administration. Bush declared an open-ended war against terrorism with virtually the entire world a potential battlefront. His lieutenants swiftly converted the threat to national security into an all-purpose justification for oil drilling in protected Arctic wilderness, suspending selected constitutional guarantees and piling another $100 billion on America’s already bloated military establishment. His political turn, frightening in its ambitions and occasionally ludicrous in the details, created in the minds of many Americans the illusion of a strong, resolute leader.

Recent events, especially the terrible bloodshed in the Middle East, have uncovered the original truth widely understood about Bush’s stature. Underneath the cowboy lingo, the man is light in substance, weak on strategy and quite willing to cut and run from principled position if he feels a chill wind from politics. There’s no comfort in that bleak observation because the Israeli-Palestinian situation is so desperately in need of wise US intervention. Bush made a reluctant foray, then meekly retreated before Sharon’s belligerence, hailing him as “a man of peace” while the UN envoy described Sharon’s accomplishments in the West Bank as “horrific and shocking beyond belief.” A few days later in Venezuela, Bush’s familiar preachments on spreading democracy to the world were likewise rendered moot. When oil business and military collaborators attempted a “regime change” smelling of US complicity, the White House responded ahead of the facts by blaming the ousted president, Hugo Chávez, for the coup, then had to swallow its words a day later, when the coup failed.

Domestically, as his inflated poll ratings shrink like an over-valued tech stock, Bush’s presidency is naturally altered. Having provoked a polarizing fight over Alaskan oil, he scurried away from the battle, but Washington politicians did not fail to note that he lost–big. Al Gore returned onstage with a well-turned critique of Bush’s environmental and energy policies, throwing stronger punches than he had as a presidential candidate. Democratic leaders are (too late) finding a critical voice, while GOP right-wingers freely tee off on the head of their party. Before long, we expect the media will again be highlighting the President’s frequent malapropisms and writing more telling analysis of his leadership.

A cheerful way to describe this shift in the political zeitgeist is to suggest that Americans are finally getting over the intimidating aftermath of September 11–recognizing that this country doesn’t work very well when people expressing diverse views are browbeaten into silence by “patriots.” What does it mean that Michael Moore’s astute and hilariously subversive riff on politics, Stupid White Men, went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list? “I think people are tired of being told they can’t be Americans,” Moore told the Los Angeles Times. “Many have found that by remaining silent, the guy in the Oval Office has been given carte blanche to get away with whatever (tax cuts for the rich, ducking Enron) he wants.”

If Michael Moore is right, that would be truly good news for the Republic.