Presidential campaigns do more than just send a chief executive to the White House. They also illuminate social trends and define issues, explain where America has come from and where it is headed, and generate more than their share of triumph and tragedy—and even a fair bit of comedy in between.
Sometimes, campaign moments give us insight into the changes and disparities in our culture. Take the story of Hillary Clinton's emotional display in January. Known for her steely resolve and stoicism, Clinton let her guard down at a voter forum on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. Her eyes welling with tears and her voice shaky, she admitted that coping with the campaign's demands is a constant challenge but added that she is committed to improving the lives of everyday Americans. Many voters, especially women, were pleasantly surprised by her vulnerability, and the incident helped propel her to a come-from-behind victory.
But the reaction was quite different to a display of strong feelings 36 years earlier. In 1972, Democratic candidate Ed Muskie of Maine got carried away when his wife came under attack during the same primary. Whether he actually wept or just had some melted snow on his face remains a matter of debate. But Muskie's impassioned defense of his wife made him seem unsteady and weak, and it damaged his campaign.
Sometimes, events outside a campaign make a huge impact, such as the anti-Vietnam War uproar on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. The violence convinced many voters that the Democrats couldn't ensure law and order.
On other occasions, it is a negative moment that becomes a classic, such as the tough "Daisy Ad," which brilliantly portrayed Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as a dangerous confrontationist in 1964. It is still considered one of the most powerful attack ads ever run.
There have been many other memorable times—Teddy Roosevelt's fierce and unprecedented third-party bid in 1912; Harry Truman's "Whistle Stop" campaign and his upset victory as Everyman in 1948; the televised debate between the charismatic John Kennedy and the dour Richard Nixon in 1960.
Such historic episodes do more than define our politics. They also trace the arc of American history. No doubt we will see more of them as the 2008 campaign continues to unfold.