Presidential campaigns sometimes
turn on big moments that help voters ponder the central question
they have about every challenger: What would this person
actually be like as president?

These aren’t the same as gaffes, which are slips of the
tongue that may be politically damaging but say little about the
candidates except that they misspoke.

I’m talking instead about critical moments of
miscalculation — often made in desperation — that illuminate
important truths about a politician.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ardently defended extremism. In
1984, Walter Mondale said he would raise taxes. In 2008, John McCain suspended his campaign to work on the economic crisis and
then offered no solutions for it. They all lost.

Now we have Mitt Romney, with astonishingly poor timing,
trying to profit politically from tragic events in the Middle
East. His remarks on Libya and Egypt at a news conference in
Jacksonville, Florida, might or might not hurt his chances with
pivotal independent voters in November. But we do know that he
has managed to be simultaneously unpresidential, untruthful and

On the morning of Sept. 12, the world learned of the death
of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first U.S. ambassador
killed in the line of duty since 1979. Stevens died when
terrorists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. At
the same time, angry mobs breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy
in Cairo.

Obvious Posture

The obvious and proper posture for a serious presidential
candidate at that moment of shock and sadness would have been to
show the country he could inhabit the role of mourner-in-chief,
an important part of being president. Vows of justice are also
welcome. Even if Romney couldn’t compete with President Barack Obama on this terrain, he needed to at least appear to be above
partisan politics for a day or two.

Instead, Romney doubled down on a scorching statement
issued the night before by his campaign that said: “It’s
disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was
not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to
sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

In Jacksonville, Romney compounded his campaign’s slur with
one of his own. “I also believe the administration was wrong to
stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached
our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions,” he

Accusations that the Obama administration is somehow
“sympathizing” with terrorists are false and, well, pathetic.

Here’s what the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, run by the Bush-era
Ambassador Anne Patterson, wrote after mobs gathered outside in
protest against a virulently anti-Muslim film associated with
Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones:

The embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided
individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we
condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” it said.
“We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal
right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

This is “disgraceful”? Really?

Read dispassionately, the statement is merely an effort by
prudent diplomats to prevent a riot and bodily harm to
Americans. It is almost identical to what the Bush
administration said in 2006 after cartoons denigrating the
Prophet Mohammad appeared in European newspapers: “We find them
offensive, and we certainly understand why Muslims would find
these images offensive.”

Was that also “akin to apology,” as Romney deemed the
statement from the embassy in Cairo?

Republican Base

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the nominee is
trying to pander to the Republican base, almost one-third of
which still believes — against all evidence — that Obama is a

In a fast-moving international crisis, facts can be
confusing, which is why prudent leaders exercise caution. Not
Romney, who was proud to shoot from the hip. “I don’t think we
ever hesitate when we see something that is a violation of our
principles,” he said at the news conference.

A little hesitation might have helped. Romney made it sound
as if the statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo criticizing the
anti-Muslim film was issued after the compound was under attack.
It was issued before. A Twitter post reiterating the message,
which the White House later said didn’t represent U.S. policy,
was posted during the attack. But this, too, was nothing more
than an effort to calm the “Arab street” and save lives.

To get a sense of how tone-deaf Romney’s news conference
was, consider that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Fox News
political analyst Liz Cheney and William Kristol, the editor of
the Weekly Standard, were just about the only Republicans to
echo his message. House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority
Leader Mitch McConnell, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and McCain (though he assailed Obama on Libya the next day)
all issued statements about Stevens’s death and the violence in
Libya and Egypt. None included criticism of the Obama

They understand that it’s not smart to use a tragic
occasion to score political points even before the next of kin
have been notified.

This fiasco may have originated with Romney, not his staff.
In 2010, he wrote a book titled “No Apology” that charged
Obama with issuing apologies for America in seven speeches at
home and abroad in 2009. But Romney included not a single quote
from any of those Obama speeches showing that the president
actually apologized.

Is this what we want in a president? Imagine what would
happen in the Arab world if a President Romney, pursuing his
“No Apology” policy, expressed no regret when Korans were
mistakenly destroyed by U.S. forces at a prison in Afghanistan,
as they were earlier this year. The region would be ablaze for
his entire time in office.

Americans recognize that judgment, prudence, instinct and a
sense of what the moment demands are all job requirements for
the presidency. Romney met none of them this week.

Jonathan Alter

Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathanalter. Jonathan Alter is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly. He is the author of His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.