05/25/2008 08:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Not A Gaffe, An Epiphany: Clinton, Muskie, Romney

Edmund Muskie weeping in the snow, George Romney being brainwashed, Michael Dukakis in an Army tank, John Kerry on his windsurfer. These moments are memorable not because they are gaffes, but epiphanies, illuminating what many voters already think of a candidate. The images endure not because they were aberrations, but revelations.

So it is with Hillary Rodham Clinton and the nightmarish memories she summoned at the editorial board of the Argus-Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. She was tired, distracted, even groggy. She may have meant no harm, but she spoke in the context of the Clinton era, a Sister Souljah saga of saying and doing just about anything for political advantage, a recipe for political success. It's 1996, an election year? The Clintons abandon a Martha's Vineyard mansion to camp out in the Rockies. It worked.

This Clinton campaign's context has shifted from inevitability to ad hoc frenzy. As frustration and fatigue took their toll, the "kitchen sink" strategy disgorged assertions that were unlikely, then preposterous, now ghoulish. Even in the immediate context of her Friday remarks, Clinton misremembered:

"My husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary, somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California."

Bill Clinton's nomination was not in doubt when California voted on June 2, 1992. He won 15 straight primaries in April and May. He captured 30 of 36 primaries and won 51.8 percent of the popular vote in the primaries. In November, he won 43 percent of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes.

Clinton's sigh in Sioux Falls joins Muskie's temper and Romney's syntax in the pantheon of self-destructive moments. In 1968, Muskie's testiness was as notorious as Romney's malapropisms, well-known to both staff and press. Both awaited the volcanic moment of truth.

No one cringes more anxiously than staff. In 1988, the Dukakis advisers hoped their candidate's ride in a tank would emphasize his status as an Army veteran. They anticipated a nifty photo, their candidate's Macedonian locks flowing in the breeze. Dukakis, supremely proud of mandatory seat-belt laws in Massachusetts, insisted on safety first, wearing a helmet. The result: Rocky the Squirrel, too wonkish for words.

In 2004, the Kerry campaign wished its hero would adopt the Clinton vacation model, perhaps sponsoring a bowling tourney in Chillicothe. But he felt entitled and enjoyed his exotic, trendy and oh-so-telegenic sport. Staffers could not prevail against his stubbornness, though few admitted so. As another Nantucket Sound sailor, John F. Kennedy, said, "Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan."

Entitlement helped cause Kerry's downfall and Al Gore's before him. They exuded the attitude of some educated baby boomers that voters were lucky to vote for them. That sense of entitlement also animated both Clintons. Hillary Clinton may not be one of the boys, but her sense of entitlement suggests that she is too much like them. Stubbornness is the residue of entitlement.