05/09/2008 02:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Panic and the Ruin of Senator Clinton

With our kids, we have this ritual we go through to help them steady themselves when the enormity of climbing a tree or learning to ride a two-wheeler gets them a bit frazzled.

"What's the first rule of tree-climbing?" we ask.

"Don't panic," they answer and compose themselves before calmly choosing the next branch to grab.

We've suggested -- and our kids have decided -- that this is a reliable first rule for anything a person might try. Unless you count the one exception.

"What's the first rule of panicking?" we ask.

"Panic!!!" they squeal, giggling.

Watching Barack Obama pad his lead Tuesday night, a question popped into my head: If the Clintons hadn't panicked, would my candidate be doing quite this well?

South Carolina came immediately to mind. Former President Clinton might have found a way to take his wife's Jan. 26 defeat in stride. He might have projected a dignified, quiet, determined, hell-I've-been-impeached-before-and-this-is-no-big-deal confidence.


Cockiness -- a trait that has as much in common with confidence as a toupee has in common with hair. You get close to cockiness, you take a better look, and suddenly you're a little embarrassed for the guy who's glued it to his head. He seems a little smaller, a little less authentic. Or, in the terminology of this election season, a little less inevitable.

But Bill's cockiness also had a voice. And with a few heedless words comparing Barack Obama's electability to that of Jesse Jackson two decades earlier, the same Bill who an otherwise wise novelist once anointed America's "first black president" shrunk down into a petty, polarizing fraction of his former self. In the months that followed, trying to win back a voting bloc many initially assumed his wife could count on, his attempts took on an increasingly desperate, some-of-my-best-friends-are-black tone: "You've got to really go some to play the race card with me. My office is in Harlem, and Harlem voted for Hillary, by the way."

By Indiana and North Carolina, America's "first black president" was reduced to impersonating Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark in towns whose entire population would fit comfortably into the cheap seats of an Obama arena.

"They think we're dumber than we are," he said, speaking from a North Carolina porch. "I grew up in a place like this. I know people here are as smart as anywhere else."

This sort of scene, according to America's paper of record, amounted to Bill Clinton getting his "groove back."

But this can't have been the sort of groove he expected for himself or his wife when they set out for their easy, inevitable stroll back to the White House against a field of Democratic neophytes and nobodies, followed by whichever Republican would be stuck trying to re-sell the Bush legacy to a wary public.

Instead, the Clintons are here. Where panic leads.

Because it can only be pathology or panic that leads an accomplished, experienced, Wellesley-and-Yale-educated lawyer to claim repeatedly, extravagantly, and falsely that she dodged sniper fire on a Bosnian tarmac.

It can only be panic that prompts a candidate to belittle the earnest, eager, energized newcomers swelling the ranks of the party she aspires to lead. Panic leads to smug, gratuitous talk that "celestial choirs" won't magically change D.C.

It can only be panic that makes a renowned policy wonk pander so egregiously that the last, best defense for her gas-tax holiday is to scoff, "I'm not going to put in my lot with economists ... Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans."

Panic, in short, has led Senator Clinton to caricature herself more grotesquely and permanently than her most vicious critics ever have.

We have all witnessed something very sad and very destructive. We deserve to have it end soon. We deserve to not be subjected to this kind of spectacle again. Not with the so-called "nuclear option." Not with the nightmare of a "dream ticket." Not, frankly, with another White House run in 2012.

What's the first rule of conceding defeat in a presidential election you were supposed to win?

Don't panic.