ublic crying in American politics is a small but visible Scarlet Letter mostly distinct from gender and race, the twin lodestones of the Democratic half of the race for the American presidency.
When Hillary Clinton grew misty-eyed ahead of the New Hampshire primary she broke what feminist author and supporter Gloria Steinem called “the no-tears rule,” an act that Steinem insisted took courage.
Politically, the “no-tears rule” descends from the 1972 New Hampshire primary in which Maine senator and presidential contender Ed Muskie, a stoic front-runner, broke down while defending his wife from personal attacks published in muckraker William Loeb’s New Hampshire Union-Leader newspaper. That the tears might have been melting snowflake flakes didn’t matter. He was branded as emotional and faded from contention.
Clinton won’t fade. She might even profit. Her polished, at times robotic persona got an evident boost. Detractors naturally labeled the emotion false or contrived. Most vicious were women. “Certainly it was impressive that she could choke up and stay on message,” wrote columnist Maureen Dowd, the author, ironically, of a book of essays about the insensitivity of men. “There was a whiff of Nixonian self-pity about her choking up.” To essayist Judith Warner, the “almost-tears” were “depressing and disheartening” because they showed a “smart and savvy woman cut down to size.”
Only wounded and menopausal could Clinton bring women into her quest. “Feeling, not thinking” had seized the candidates, she added — which begged the question when feeling has not been pre-eminent in presidential races. Nonetheless, Clinton’s “lapse” opened a Pandora’s Box.
Crying in pop culture includes a strong component of femaleness. Boys (and big girls) don’t cry. Sexism slices both ways, however: women don’t like seeing powerful men weep, at least not while they’re publicly paternal. Authentic authority — think Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy — should show sensitivity but not sentiment.
Gender is an important part of “tear-study” but not the dominant one.
While Americans revel in emotional manipulation in film and television they expect a different façade from leaders. Grief is an exception, so is success. Actors and sports figures are exempt from judgment. Winning and losing confer popular immunity.
Not to presidential aspirants.
They are expected, win or lose, superpower leaders in waiting, to transmit a paradoxical mix of involvement and aloofness. Rhetoric, humble or highfalutin, is acceptable, so is an occasional loss of composure (witness Clinton), but not a public sob (hence the fuss about the “almost-tears”).
The matter has less to do with showing feelings than growing public confusion regarding how to assimilate embarrassment. Embarrassment is a subtle threat more cutting than confrontation. It’s what leads viewers of film violence and sex to wince or look away, feeling themselves suddenly made privy to situations that intrigue them but would from which they’d prefer to remain remote. Americans, though remarkably open-minded, have a troubled relationship with social skills, and consequently with voyeurism: They ridicule the humiliation of others to defend themselves. Tears, like sexuality, are enticing but disconcerting. They’re invasive. Phrases such as “too much information,” “in the privacy of your own home,” and “not here, not now,” come to mind.
Latin Europe is more unyielding, and also more skeptical.
Political contenders in Italy and Spain, two countries with strong non-secular roots, are cautious with crying, which might suggest not only loss of control but also the infantile. A consciously male-managed state trivializes the effeminate. “Almost-tears” wouldn’t work in Europe’s Mediterranean south (which is why defiant and testy Margaret Thatcher, in terms of leadership, remains a desired female archetype).
“When hard women cry, it is even more shocking than when men crack up,” wrote the BBC’s Matt Frei, who recalled Thatcher’s brief lapse when her Conservative Party finally cut her loose in 1990 (“a tear suspended under a tired right eye.”)
A rare exception was former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a passionate former union and vodka man who was both intimate and emotional. His unscripted vulnerability, accepted as idiosyncrasy by his constituency, was an aspect of his charm.
But Hawke was the profoundest of exceptions.
The tear threshold is low. Clinton may have used her political life’s munitions in one sitting.