Key Points:

It has been a long wait for a Prime Minister at Waitangi. Ten years to be precise. Helen Clark came once or twice but never in good spirit.

John Key came with a partnership that has Maori hopeful as never before. "Gidday mate," he greeted Pita Sharples at the gate.

They'd both just come through a warm, excited crush at the entrance to Te Tii Marae. A loon near me rushed the car. Key and Sharples were caught in the scuffle. Each emerged determined not to make too much of it. It has been a long wait for a Prime Minister.

This is not the most favourable moment for an assessment of his predecessor's place in our history but her admirers have raised the subject now, naming her the "greatest living New Zealander".

Regular Herald readers will know what happened. At Hillary's anniversary last month this newspaper ran an online survey to discover who might inherit his mantle.

The paper suggested several candidates, none of them politicians. It is an exercise easily hijacked by a political party but to dismiss the result on that account would miss the point. That Labour people would bother, speaks volumes for Helen Clark.

Think about it. She is no longer their leader. She is probably going to retire from Parliament as soon as she finds a new challenge.

The next election is a very long way off and for the moment the party's interests lie in promoting Phil Goff. It has no reason to expend energy on a write-in campaign for a former leader. No reason except that it adores her.

Every reporter of politics notices this. Helen Clark had a special chemistry with Labour people long before she became Prime Minister.

By the time the rest of the country had wearied of her she had risen to stratospheric levels in the party's regard, and the reason is not hard to understand. No Labour leader since Peter Fraser had kept the party in power for nine years and Fraser's government expired in 1949, before most of today's Labour Party was born.

For the next 50 years the party spent all but 12 years in Opposition. Twice it was elected and ejected at the next election. David Lange won a second term but his was not Labour's government.

Through the latter half of the 20th century it became evident that National was this country's "natural" government. Labour would be given an occasional turn but National was the default setting.

This was the state of politics Helen Clark set out to change when she came to power at the Century's end.

Her over-riding goal was to win a second election and a third.

For six years she would take no political risks. She followed the political studies textbook, doing no more or less than she had promised at the election, suspending ministers at the first whiff of embarrassment, returning media calls, making sure her decisions were understood.

Those decisions, if not exactly courageous, were usually in accord with common sense and her answers to interviewers were invariably concise, informative and fairly convincing.

By the time she had won the coveted third term she had gone a long way to laying the 20th Century's ghosts. Her sure touch, together with the financial caution of Michael Cullen, had made Labour a credible governing party. And its success in maintaining partnerships with supporting parties began to suggest that Labour might be the "natural" leader of 21st century MMP politics.

John Key has already done enough to contest that last claim but the credibility Clark has given to Labour remains. She has left the party in a position to return on the next tide. It is a remarkable achievement. The country's first elected female Prime Minister will go into history as one of its most successful. She will have an exalted place in the pantheon of the political left forever.

But she fell short of greatness for me. She lacked a largeness of spirit that truly great leadership requires. At one level that deficiency could be seen in her response to the suggestion that Sir Roger Douglas could be "our greatest living New Zealander".

He is not that either, for different reasons, but now that she has rescued Labour from his legacy her comment could have been more generous - as generous as John Key was to her nomination.

That lack, that meanness of spirit, was most evident at Waitangi. It was evident in her rare attendance but just as evident in her absence.

Waitangi asks a lot of political leaders. They will not be feted there until they have had the courage to front up to whatever might happen. Helen Clark would not, could not.

She claimed she would not risk the dignity of her office but that was not the real reason.

The truth is she could not find it in herself to rise above small indignities and defeat them with humility and generosity of spirit.

I keep coming back to that world. Waitangi is a spiritual event. Helen Clark is not spiritual at all. She simply could not do what Jenny Shipley did, and Jim Anderton, John Key and, yesterday, Phil Goff.

At Waitangi she couldn't offer a prayer. She couldn't find the capacity in her soul to say something humble, heartfelt and uplifting in the cradle of the nation's hopes.