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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Crying Game

Standing in front of the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper in the falling snow of a cold late February afternoon in 1972,  Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie cried and promptly sunk his candidacy for President of the United States. A United States Senator crying in public just seemed so, well unmanly. Muskie so the conventional wisdom held wasn’t tough enough for the toughest job in the world. It was widely reported at the time that Muskie had shed a tear while defending himself and his wife against the personal attacks that Union-Leader publisher William Loeb used for many years to influence the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The venerable David Broder wrote in the Washington Post that Muskie had “tears streaming down his face,” but later acknowledge that the tears might just have been melting snow. In any event, a standard was adopted. Politicians, even when defending their spouses and attacking a cranky old neswspaper publisher, do not cry in public.

But that notion has become so 1972.

The underlying narrative of the just completed GOP Convention was the need to “humanize” Mitt Romney. The humanizing imperative was, according to the pundits, particularly important with the undecided voter and with women who,  one might conclude, just need a little emotion to really get into a candidate’s human side. A parade of character witnesses, including Ann Romney, folks whom Romney counseled as a church leader and politicians from Paul Ryan to Chris Christie worked hard to put a human sheen on the candidate’s stiff, buttoned-down persona. But everyone watching knew that the real humanizing moment(s) had to come from Romney himself. By most counts he choked up – modestly – twice during his speech. No reports of tears, however, which may have been the humanizing coup d’ grace for a guy known more for his spreadsheets than his soft side.

Wetting a cheek has now become as standard for a politician needing to show his or her real self. Hillary Clinton choked up in New Hampshire in 2008 and the teary moment helped the colder-than-her-husband candidate connect with “real” people who, presumably, cry all the time. House Speaker John Boehner is a world-class crier and not just of the quivering lip variety. When Boehner cries the waterworks come on full blast and there appears little he can do to control the impulse. The president cried when his grandmother died on the eve of the ’08 election; Bob Dole, the one-time GOP hatchet-man, has been know to shed a tear and Rick Santorum openly cried when talking on the campaign trail about his ailing daughter.

So, while some of us feel like crying when we hear certain politicians open their mouths, it is undeniable that there is now widespread crying in politics, if not in baseball. Thanks to Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own, crying in the dugout is forever not going to be acceptable. But the no crying in politics rule has now completely been consigned  – sorry Ed Muskie – to the dust bin of history. 

Tom Lutz, who wrote a book about the social history of crying, true story, told the New York Times in 2010 that the current crop of criers is actually a return to our roots, er, our tear ducts.

“Men cried openly and often in the upper classes in the 18th century,” Lutz said. “Lincoln and Douglas both cried on the stump. And men cry more openly now than they did 50 years ago. Issues of ‘control’ are always in relation to these changing social norms. Bob Dole cried in public exactly twice before his 1996 campaign. But in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton had transformed the political meaning of crying; it tracked very well with women voters. All of a sudden Bob Dole couldn’t control his crying and did it often.”

Still, I have trouble envisioning Franklin Roosevelt crying during a speech. He usually had a smile on his face, while sticking it to the Republicans. Or, Dwight Eisenhower, a president who looks better and better as time goes on, couldn’t have been a crier. The image of Ike that endures is his earnest visit with the D-Day paratroopers before they set off to liberate Europe. Not much room for weepy emotion there. And I wonder about a double standard in the political crying game. Can a woman politician cry in public with impunity? Hillary managed the strategic cry when fighting for her political survival during the brutal primary with Obama, but if she teared up while discussing her current job would it be humanizing or foreign policy faux pas? I think I know.

Patrick Barkham wrote about the British political penchant for the tear a while back in The Guardian and offered a conclusion with which I think I agree. “The most profitable political tears are probably those shed when a politician is confronted with a tragedy that is not the demise of their own careers,” Barham wrote. Well said and very British stiff upper lip in its sensibility.

Tears shed over a tragedy are one thing, moist eyes in the interest of trying to humanize a candidate seems strangely, well, not quite human. After all, if you need to humanize a human being, well let’s don’t go there.

The tears, if that is what they were, that Ed Muskie shed in the New Hampshire snow 40 years ago are part of that remarkable man’s legacy. My how times change. Muskie didn’t get to the White House, but did serve as Secretary of State. And here’s betting that his predecessors in that job, think John Foster Dulles or Dean Acheson, never cried. Today, considering how far tears have come, Muskie’s wet cheeks might be considered just a really effective, humanizing moment in his stump speech.

I may be in danger of crossing over to cynicism about all this crying, but I’m pretty sure John Boehner’s tears well up from some genuine place. I have a hunch some others who are weeping on the stump have come to see the carefully calibrated tear as just another gesture in the speech arsenal. I’m waiting for the headline: “Candidate X accused of faking his tears.” At that moment the tactical tear will have really become part of the political mainstream.

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