Recent events in America have revealed a creeping mildew of pain and privation, graft and injustice and much incompetence lurking beneath the glow of star-spangled superiority.
Is This The Death of America
By Dermot Purgavie
The Mirror UK
America's sense of itself - its pride in its power - has been profoundly damaged.
This week Karen Hughes, long-time political adviser to George Bush, began her new mission as the State Department's official defender of America's image with a tour of the Middle East.
She might have been more help to her beleaguered president had she stayed at home and used her PR skills on her neighbours. At the end of a cruel and turbulent summer, nobody is more dismayed and demoralised about America than Americans.
They have watched with growing disbelief and horror as a convergence of events - dominated by the unending war in Iraq and two hurricanes - have exposed ugly and disturbing things in the undergrowth that shame and embarrass Americans and undermine their belief in the nation and its values.
With TV providing a ceaseless backdrop of the country's failings - a crippled and tone-deaf president, a negligent government, corruption, military atrocities, soaring debt, racial conflict, poverty, bloated bodies in floodwater, people dying on camera for want of food, water and medicine - it seemed things were falling apart in the land where happiness is promoted in the constitution.
Disillusioning news was everywhere. In the flight from Hurricane Rita, evacuees fought knife fights over cans of petrol. In storm-hit Louisiana there were long queues at gun stores as people armed themselves against looters.
America, which has the world's costliest health care, had, it turned out, higher infant mortality rates than the broke and despised Cuba.
Tom De Lay, Republican enforcer in the House of Representatives, was indicted for conspiracy and money laundering. The leader of the Republicans in the Senate was under investigation for his stock dealings. And Osama bin Laden was still on the loose.
Americans are the planet's biggest flag wavers. They are reared on the conceit that theirs is the world's best and most enviable country, born only the day before yesterday but a model society with freedom, opportunity and prosperity not found, they think, in older cultures.
They rejoice that "We are No.1", and in many ways they are.
But events have revealed a creeping mildew of pain and privation, graft and injustice and much incompetence lurking beneath the glow of star-spangled superiority.
Many here feel the country is breaking down and losing its moral and political authority.
"US in funk" say the headlines. "I am ashamed to be an American," say the letters to the editor. We are seeing, say the commentators, a crumbling - and humbling - of America.
The catalogue of afflictions is long and grisly. Hurricane Katrina revealed confusion and incompetence throughout government, from town hall to White House.
President Bush, accused of an alarming failure of leadership over the disaster, has now been to the Gulf coast seven times for carefully orchestrated photo opps.
But his approval has dropped below 40 per cent. Public doubt about his capacity to deal with pressing problems is growing.
Americans feel ashamed by the violent, predatory behaviour Katrina triggered - nothing similar happened in the tsunami-hit Third World countries - and by the deep racial and class divisions it revealed.
The press has since been giving the country a crash course on poverty and race, informing the flag wavers that an uncaring America may be No.1 on the world inequities index.
It has 37 million living under the poverty line, largely unnoticed by the richest in a country with more than three million millionaires.
The typical white family has $80,000 in assets; the average black family about $6,000. It's a wealth gap out of the Middle Ages. Some 46 million can't afford health insurance, 18,000 of whom will die early because of it.
The US, we learn, is 43rd in the world infant mortality rankings. A baby born in Beijing has nearly three times the chance of reaching its first birthday than a baby born in Washington. Those who survive face rotten schools. On reading and maths tests for 15-year-olds, America is 24th out of 29 nations.
On the other side of the tracks, 18 corporate executives have so far been jailed for cooking the books and looting billions. The prosecution of Mr Bush's pals at Enron - the showcase trial of the greed-is-good culture - will be soon.
But the backroom deal lives on and, in an orgy of cronyism, billions of dollars are being carved up in no-bid contracts awarded to politically-connected firms for work in the hurricane-hit states and in Iraq.
The war, seen as unwinnable, is becoming a bleak burden, with nearly 2,000 American dead. Two-thirds think the invasion was a mistake.
The war costs $6 billion a month, driving up a nose-bleed high $331 billion budget deficit. In five years the conflict will have cost each American family $11,300, it is said.
Mr Bush says blithely he'll cut existing programmes to pay for the war and fund an estimated $200 billion for hurricane damage. He won't, he says, rescind his tax cuts. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel says Mr Bush is "disconnected from reality".
Americans have been angered by reports that US troops have routinely tortured Iraqi prisoners. Some 230 low-rankers have been convicted - but not one general or Pentagon overseer. Disgruntled young officers are leaving in increasing numbers.
Meanwhile, further damaging Americans' self image, there's Afghanistan. The White House says its operations there were a success, yet last year Afghanistan supplied 90 per cent of the world's heroin.
America's sense of itself - its pride in its power and authority, its faith in its institutions and its belief in its leaders - has been profoundly damaged. And now the talking heads in Washington predict dramatic political change and the death of the Republicans' hope of becoming the permanent government.