The Politics of Tears

Hillary's teary moment was greeted with cynicism by most journalists, but my guess is that it was "real enough," as Barack Obama might say; in any case, it worked. Shows of emotion are an essential bit of political theater. They're not new to the Hillary Clinton campaign--which seemed to gain strength among women voters from her emotional moment--and they're fairly old hat in politics. People expect their leaders to be human, to be emotional, not always entirely rational--within limits. For politicians the tricky question is when to show emotion, and how to show it, and how much. Long before she welled up, it was obvious that Hillary had decided (or been advised) that she comes across as too controlled and controlling--too cold. Back in October, reporters began noticing that she was frequently laughing, a big belly laugh, sometimes for no apparent reason. In fact, she has an engaging, merry, infectious laugh, one that sounds genuine.

Laughter is one thing. Everyone loves a good laugh, as long as it's not inappropriate to the moment. Tears are more problematic, especially for a woman who has to be careful around retro voters (there are plenty still out there) who are looking for any sign that a woman is somehow not up to the job. There is a great scene in the old Denzel Washington-Meg Ryan war movie "Courage Under Fire" when Ryan, playing an Army helicopter pilot shot down behind enemy lines in the first gulf war, wipes away tears of anxiety. "They're just tears," she says to her men, meaning no big deal, I'll get over it and you should, too. Her men, at first anxious that their commander is breaking under the pressure, are reassured. But some voters remain wary of female "emotionalism."

For many years, any politician who wept was deemed weak. Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, once considered the Democratic front runner in the 1972 campaign, cried in New Hampshire in defending his wife from attacks by the state's major newspaper; the episode badly hurt his image and his election chances (Muskie blamed the snow for making his cheeks appear damp). But Ronald Reagan changed the rules. He was so manifestly rugged, he carried himself in such a manly way, that when he teared up, well, that was just warm-hearted sentiment.

Both Bushes are self-confessed weepers. Indeed, at George W. Bush's Inauguration in January 2001, it was fascinating to watch as the president-elect made his way down to his seat on the reviewing stand. He had a smile, a nod, a greeting for everyone--except, notably, for his father. It was obvious that 41 did not want to catch the eye of 43, and 43 was just as wary. Both men knew they might blubber, which would have seemed mawkish and off-putting just as the president was about to take the oath of office. Bush the younger tries to pick his moments to tear up--he is not reluctant to weep when he meets the families of the dead and wounded in Iraq, though these occasions are almost always private.

Bill Clinton, a master of the stump and a world-class actor, comes equipped with a full range of emotions. His soulful, misty-eyed eulogy for those killed in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 helped turn around his political fortunes after Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution surprised the Clintonites in the 1994 elections. Clinton can be a little too soulful at times. His lip-biting can look petulant and self-pitying. He can also seem inauthentic, dangerous territory for a politician. His wife is not the only one who has gotten emotional in the 2008 campaign; Republican Mitt Romney has welled up on several occasions, to less fanfare than Hillary's much-covered moment.

The most authentically emotional pol may have been Robert Kennedy. RFK did not cry--his favorite word was "tough" and tough guys didn't cry, at least in the hardball world of the Kennedys. But his face registered empathy, profound sadness, even tragedy. He was not a very good speaker in the traditional sense--his hands shook so much he had to grip the podium, and his voice could be reedy or too hot. He tended to hunch rather than stand up straight. But voters could feel his pain, and he was able to convince voters, especially the poor and dispossessed, that he felt theirs. This was not so much because he was articulate but rather because he was inarticulate--he seemed to grope for the right thing to say, as ordinary people do. He seemed to give a voice to the voiceless. This is a priceless quality of emotion in a politician--and one that cannot be faked.