When the year began, things seemed just fine, things felt as if we were John Wayne sitting on his horse and staring down the hill at the end of "Chisum," bemused with self-congratulation, a thin, wide smile in the sunset. We had won the Cold War. We had come to "the end of history," to use a phrase of the moment. Liberty, justice and VCRs for all! Everything was possible, nothing was quite real.

Then things changed. Things tightened up, things fell apart. Things battened the hatches and worried. Things started plunging: the president's approval rating, the Japanese stock market, consumer confidence, real estate prices, art prices, Donald Trump's credit rating -- things that had risen up and up and up in the great psychological Ponzi scheme known as the 1980s. Less was possible, more was real.

Deep inside the Beltway, Washington's worrying class worried. Its thing was power. For decades, so many of Washington's most excellent bureaucrats, lawyers, journalists, policy wonks and lobbyists had believed they could gain ever-increasing amounts of power merely by going to each other's dinner parties, sort of like the economists' parable of the town where everyone makes a living by taking in everyone else's laundry. But it turned out that power might derive from something more than good veal and crisp demeanor -- certainly there had been more of it around during the Cold War and the days before the Reagan deficits made it hard to buy ever more love and votes.

All year, dread of an angry citizenry verged on panic, with warnings that somewhere outside the Beltway, puritans in pickup trucks would soon throw women in jail for seeking abortions, would hand flag-burners over to juries filled with crazed worshipers of the risen Elvis, would ban all art unsuitable for a bank calendar or a school lunch box, would elect a former Louisiana Ku Klux Klansman named David Duke to the Senate.

"Watch out for the puritans." This sounded strange coming from the Savonarolas of the governing class, people who themselves had stopped drinking, smoking, eating eggs, butter, red meat and chicken skin, wearing fur coats, going to violent movies and telling any ethnic jokes whatsoever.

By election time the worriers were convinced that voters hated everyone in office; that out there in powdered-breakfast-drink land, where people don't listen to National Public Radio and don't have dinner parties (not to be confused with having people over for dinner), rough beasts were slouching toward polling booths.

What's strange is that despite the distress of the dinner-partistas, the good people of America in the last few years have yet -- in juries or legislatures assembled -- to significantly infringe upon free speech or abortion rights. They said no to David Duke and they returned 97 percent of incumbent candidates to Congress. Yet the worries continued, as though some sort of Wizard of Oz complex gnawed at the mighty, as though some scruffy little dog might pull away their curtain and reveal them as blustering hustlers, even if good-hearted ones.

Would the little dog turn out to be Saddam Hussein? With an army raised in a country the size of greater Los Angeles, the Cur of the Chaldees conquered Kuwait.

"This will not stand," said George Bush, who compared Saddam to Hitler and sent hundreds of thousands of troops to the Persian Gulf. Ah, plucky Kuwait -- was this the same country that last January attacked its own citizens with tear gas and water cannon when they demanded freedom of the press and the return of democracy? Bad form to mention such things. We worried we'd have a war; we worried we wouldn't. Ted Kennedy said, "There is no consensus." Before shooting could even begin we were running out of spare parts for airplanes that broke down in the desert dust, dust "like talcum," the briefing officers kept saying. Washington may have needed a good war, but this one wasn't it, although it made politics interesting for the first time in years.

It even made George Bush interesting. If Ronald Reagan was a figment of our imagination, there was something about the blithe hypomania of George Bush, something about his air of entitlement, about his occasional microbursts of puzzled resentment that suggested we were a figment of his imagination. One wondered too if there might not be a moment or two during his day when his imagination failed him and he sat in his chair, clenched his jaw and breathed in for a second, and then everything was all right again. Or were we the ones doing the clenching and breathing?

Only a year ago, the American way seemed to be something we could simply release around the world, like a movie. Then things went and turned real on us.

In Panama, back in January, Gen. Manuel Noriega surrendered after days of bombardment by American rock music. Such jolliness and farce! The Army announced we'd found 110 pounds of cocaine in Noriega's office, but it turned out to be tamales. Why would a man have 110 pounds of tamales in his office? In February, our government proposed wiping out the cocaine production of Bolivia and Peru with millions of caterpillars that eat coca leaves. Would they eat tamales too?

By fall, the caterpillars were forgotten, and officials worried that Noriega might beat the drug charges against him, although the tamale case looked solid.

In the Soviet Union, the year began with stirring footage of statues of Lenin being pulled to the ground. By November in Leningrad, food lines were so long that people fainted from hunger, broke ribs and had heart attacks. Germany became one country again, a fine thing marred only slightly by neo-Nazi youth gangs in capes smashing storefronts in Leipzig and arming themselves, it was said, with black-market Soviet rocket launchers. Gorbachev, the Nobel Prize winner, the object of adoring screams on the streets of Washington, started to look small, gray, tired and worried.

Icons crumbled, role models tumbled.

Donald Trump started off the year playing the Ultimate Egregious American Millionaire, and ended up dodging an angry audience of bondholders. Marion Barry, the mayor who billed himself as the Night Owl, starred in a popular FBI videotape known as "The Bitch Set Me Up." He was convicted of a drug misdemeanor, and then he couldn't even get elected to an at-large seat on the city council, and then his wife moved out. Michael Milken, the curly-haired boyish star of the '80s on Wall Street, got a 10-year sentence to a prison whose rules would keep him from wearing his curly, boyish wig. Neil Bush, the president's son, not only had to appear before bank regulators, but also had to hear his father describe him as his "second most sensitive" son.

The flower of middle-class moralism turned out in spring weather for a mass celebration of Earth Day, a ritual worthy of the better days of the French Revolution. By fall, voters were trashing environmental initiatives and Earth Day had been forgotten, cast into the memory hole with short-lived phenomena like plucky Lithuania and nasty comedian Andrew Dice Clay.

Things had started so well this year -- a bit lacking in muscle tone perhaps, a bit smug and bored, but what had we done to deserve this sort of change?

Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose own lieutenant governor tried to engineer a coup last fall, said that America seemed to be having a "collective nervous breakdown." A New York Times/CBS poll said four out of 10 Americans thought things would get worse in the next five years.

Bush worried publicly that we might be returning to the days of Jimmy Carter's malaise. He visited the Persian Gulf for Thanksgiving. The greatest logistics machine in history got turkey dinners to most, but not all, of the troops out there in the talcum-like dust. Then we were into the holiday season, time for the annual media plaints about empty stores and tapped-out consumers. The Senate grilled the Keating Five -- senators who had done business with savings-and-loan greedhead Charles Keating. Judicial scholar Bruce Fein was unkind enough to remind us of the truth about representative government: "The difference between bribery and constituent service is a dim one." Was the fox in the henhouse, or were the chickens just coming home to roost? So little was possible, so much was real.

Oh, war, and rumors of war. And puritan self-loathing. And self-pity, playing like Muzak in the great elevator of the American psyche.

One is tempted to say what a lovely fall it was, how warm, except that one doesn't want to get the global-warming worriers riled up. But let the record show that summer lasted so long, this year, that leaves were still falling off the trees in December, speckling the "statued air," as Philip Larkin once wrote, he being the poet laureate of late-20th-century decline and -- dare we say it? -- fall.

Henry Allen writes for The Post's Style section.