When the end came, it was swift and unsentimental. "It is over and out for me," Helen Clark told her heartbroken party about 11.30pm on Saturday, and then left the stage.
Her remarkable career, like those of so many other strong leaders, will end in failure, immortality a poll too far. Her talents and achievements are well documented in uniting Labour and finding a path of restraining free-market economics while overseeing strong growth, reduced debt and, for all but the final months, admirable fiscal discipline.
As is her peerless representation of New Zealand abroad, a leader of the highest intellect and international credentials impatient to keep this country relevant and connected.
A measure of success will be that the Clark Government's signature policies will likely survive defeat. Her "fear" expressed on election night of Labour's achievements being lost in a right-wing bonfire seemed smaller-minded and less confident of her legacy than a realistic commentator would offer.
New leaders have a honeymoon and those who quit, supposedly at the height of their powers, are often afforded the same sentimental suspension of judgment. As evidenced, Helen Clark is not one for sentiment and her failure this time deserves inquiry.
She accepted responsibility for defeat, and rightly so. She was simultaneously the best and worst thing going for her party, and its chief strategist for this election. On both strategic and tactical levels she contributed to the "time for a change" mentality that will deliver power to her rival, John Key. This last term Labour blurred in its own mind its interests as a private political party and those of the public. From the beginning, the intransigence over repaying the $800,000 of taxpayers' money unlawfully spent on the 2005 election for the "pledge card" set a tone of retaining power above all. Things worsened rather than improved after that scandal. The result was the malignant Electoral Finance Act which, stripped of all artifice, was aimed at preventing Labour losing power.
Helen Clark's uncharacteristic failure to read correctly the court of public opinion on Winston Peters and his party's litany of political abuses has received its jury verdict.
In sticking with New Zealand First to save itself, Labour was guilty by association, guilty on all counts, with no recommendation for mercy. When governments see power as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, voters usually withdraw it.
Making the election campaign about "trust" was another error. While the word stuck, and was thus a successful touchstone for voters, it perversely made them think about many minor issues on which Labour had lost trust. Running a campaign which until the final leaders' debate was universally negative on the opponent must surely call into question the Prime Minister's acumen. Sanctioning, if not "running", the fatal tactical move of trawling 20-year-old Australian court records of a major fraud to discredit Mr Key showed a hollowness unheard of in the early years.
Helen Clark was the strongest Prime Minister with the most disciplined team for a generation. But in this campaign she reverted too often to the Opposition leader of old, exhibiting an aura of feeling unappreciated and unable to convince with a vision for the country.
Her party will find it hard to replace her talents. No one candidate will match her breadth of expertise and sheer willpower in pushing social democratic policies with a Kiwi flavour. She has reshaped her caucus to the left and the country firmly to the centre, a centre her opponents now occupy. Time wore Labour down but misjudgments increased its vulnerability.