Sometimes turning points in presidential campaigns are scarcely noted at the time. Because they're events that didn't happen, a low road not taken, a tactic not employed, a decisive mistake not made. Like last week's non-event in Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Told of a great big, $10 million mudball some of his backers were prepared to throw at his opponent, Mr. Romney said no thank you. Very much.
Naturally, the plan was leaked to the New York Times, the country's leading source of news that never happened, and in this case isn't about to.
Invited to revive the issue of Barack Obama's ties to his old firebrand of a pastor back in Chicago, even the billionaire backer of a Romney Super PAC had the good sense -- and good taste -- not to touch it. Wise decision.
Here was an opportunity to replay the 2008 presidential election -- and its result. Some opportunity. Mr. Moneybags turned it down, blaming the whole, awful idea on some unnamed political consultant.
But before he did, the candidate himself nixed the scheme. In no uncertain terms. "I repudiate that effort," said Mitt Romney. "I think it's the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign."
But he didn't stop at just rejecting the idea; he offered a better one. Instead of the past, he said, he hoped this year's presidential campaign could be "about the future and about issues and about vision...." Instead of looking backward, he was urging the country to look forward. It's the American way.
Successful presidential campaigns aren't just a matter of rousing speeches and glittering promises, but what the candidate declines to do -- what he cannot bring himself to do.
Call this non-event the case of the mud that was not thrown. It's of a piece with Sherlock Holmes' dog that did not bark.
The unobservant may think something that didn't happen is of no interest. On the contrary, it may be the most telling of clues. In the Holmes story, a police inspector from Scotland Yard who is consulting with our hero asks:
"Is there any other point to which you wish to draw my attention?"
To which our ace sleuth in the deerstalker cap responds: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
But, the good inspector points out, "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That," explains Holmes, "was the curious incident."
Mitt Romney did nothing about this bad idea some mastermind in the bowels of his Super PAC had come up with -- except to denounce it. That was the curious incident in last week's campaign news.
Here was the candidate's big chance to encourage the lunatic fringe of American politics -- these days it's called energizing the base -- and take up an issue that had lain dormant for four years, and proven a loser even when it was in the headlines.
Doubtless he'll have many other opportunities in this campaign to join the likes of birthers, truthers and all the other conspiracy theorists out there. The kind of kibitzers who are convinced they've got the secret of a successful presidential campaign, or maybe of the universe.
I know the type. Not a week goes by -- well, maybe a fortnight -- that some scrawled missive doesn't arrive explaining how Barack Obama was really born in Kenya or is a willing tool of the Marxist conspiracy. Or touting a sure way for Mr. Obama to win this thing hands down: "Don't run against Mitt Romney, run against Bain Capital!"
By now both campaigns will have attracted the usual flock of sharp political consultants, hangers-on, wanna-be political geniuses and the like, all overflowing with oh-so-brilliant plans the candidate should adopt -- now. Quick, there's no time to waste.
"There is a tide in the affairs of men," as Brutus tells his fellow conspirators, "which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune...." That scheme didn't turn out too well, either. (See the political analysis titled "Julius Caesar" by one Wm. Shakespeare.)
Every presidential campaign is full of Brutuses. Examples abound. There was Charles Colson -- before he saw the light on his way to the penitentiary -- eager to out-Nixon even Richard Nixon, who was not exactly a high-minded type himself. The Lee Atwaters and James Carvilles are always full of advice to the candidate, and all of it boils down to Fight Harder, by which they seem to mean only fight dirtier.
Every presidential campaign is also a morality play, which may be its most interesting aspect to some of us political voyeurs. For a political campaign is not just a contest between candidates, but between each candidate and his better self. Which will win, low ambition or high ideals? Expedience or honor?
Just how much of his simple human dignity is a candidate willing to sacrifice for public office? How much is even the presidency of the United States worth? To put it another, older way: What doth it profit a man to win the White House and lose his soul? Which is why it's encouraging to look back at this past week of Mr. Romney's campaign in which nothing of great import happened. Thank goodness.