Remember the story of Icarus from Greek mythology?
The precocious young man is given wings of feather and wax from his father, the master craftsman Daedalus. "Don't fly too close to the sun," the cocky youngster is admonished. But once magically plumed, Icarus' soaring ambitions know no bounds.
He flies higher and higher on the borrowed pinions -- until the sun's heat melts the wax away and Icarus plummets, head-over-heels, into the sea.
Our modern day Icarus, President Barack Obama, now finds himself in a similar spiral.
It wasn't last week's debate that tripped his descent. His wings were singed long before Denver 2012 by the harsh spotlight of governing. But the debate did serve to fix the president's new position in the sky. It showed nearly 70 million attentive Americans just how far the great protagonist has fallen since Denver 2008, when he thundered like a deity between artificial Greek columns at the Democratic National Convention.
It was bound to happen. Obama's 2008 campaign was unfair in its promises. He ran as a virtual messiah. The upstart from Illinois was going to halt the rise of the oceans and heal planet earth. He was going to restore American respectability overseas and usher in an era of "post-partisanship" at home. Obama was to be America's Philosopher King; he would be George Washington, Abe Lincoln, FDR, and Martin Luther King Jr. all wrapped up in one. Newspapers and magazines ran out of adjectives and metaphors for the wunderkind, just two years out of the Illinois state senate.
I remember watching young people's faces during 2007 and 2008 Obama rallies -- particularly the faces of young African-Americans -- and thinking how cruel it was to promise so much. They were mesmerized with hope at Obama's rhetorical incantations. "We are the ones we've been waiting for!" he declared.
Those words weren't his, of course. They belonged to a Brooklyn poet named June Jordan who died in 2002, when Illinois State Sen. Obama was entering his third term. But how well they worked themselves into the cadence of an Obama speech artfully crafted for the teleprompter by his lofty writing team.
Older voters who supported the president were, at least, better armed for the disappointment to follow. They knew -- or should have known -- the truth to those time-tested admonitions: What goes up must come down; if it's too good to be true, it usually isn't true; beware the door with too many keys.
But everyone wanted to believe. Even famous Republicans like Peggy Noonan, David Brooks and Christopher Buckley -- my own cousin -- climbed aboard the Hope Express. This was to be the transformational presidency, and no one wanted to be left at the station.
The Nobel Committee awarded President Obama its Peace Prize pro forma. He hadn't actually done anything yet, but just listening to the man was all the assurance it needed of the greatness that would follow.
The great mythologies aren't the only sources of wisdom available. Sometimes you can learn just as much from a wizened cab driver.
Here is Gus of Gus's Taxi in Mount Vernon, N.Y., circa 1988: "Politicians are like prize fighters," he explained to an aspiring politico (yours truly) in his backseat. "We build up the great ones until they become champions. 'There has never been another one like this,' we say. But once we see weakness in him, once we see that he bleeds red, we secretly root for the punch that will take him down."
Unless Gus is wrong -- and I don't think he is -- Icarus is about to meet the canvas.