It’s possible that John Boehner cries easily for the reason I do: he’s easily touched and not so hot at self-control. But I’m not buying that. As Rachel Maddow pointed out in her excellent segment on Boehner’s waterworks, if the fate of America’s children reduces him to tears, he could actually take steps to improve their future!
Boehner’s not the first pol to cry easily and often in public; he’s just the most unexpected and the least discriminating when it comes to his triggers. Rachel traces the history of weeping politicians back to Edmund Muskie, whose alleged tears in New Hampshire allegedly derailed his 1972 Democratic primary. (Muskie’s damp cheeks – and the weird media reaction – are among my earliest political memories. He won that primary but lost the nomination.)
There’s nothing wrong with politicians showing emotion. There’s nothing wrong with politicians crying in public. It demonstrably does not hurt them with voters, but it shows us what they feel passionately about, and what’s wrong with that?
So true. And yet, while you can find military giants shedding tears in the ancient world, here in the U.S. we’ve liked our men tough and dry-eyed. For a political leader to cry publicly was pretty well verboten from the end of WWII until the closing years of the Cold War. The same probably holds true all the way back to George Washington and his unruffled wig, but this is a blog post, not a book. So let us think of our post-war presidents! Truman was gruff and bluff. Eisenhower never lost his military bearing. JFK drew much of his power from his aristocratic cool. (Did he ever once cry publicly over the loss of his infant son, Patrick?) LBJ couldn’t afford to look soft while playing hardball with Congress.
But then came Nixon. Tricky Dick did emotion, all right. He knew how to project self-pity all the way back in ’62, when, in his purported “last press conference,” he announced his withdrawal from politics, telling reporters, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” By the early 1970s, he projected anger and paranoia pretty well, too. Indeed, Muskie’s destruction can be laid at the feet of Nixon’s henchmen and their ratfucking.
Even when forced to resign in disgrace, Nixon controlled his grief – in public. His resignation speech was calm and even resolute. (You can listen to his speech here.) My ten-year-old self felt sorry for him as I watched it, and I distinctly recalled tearing up despite knowing he was a crook and needed to go. Disgrace and shame push my empathy buttons even when that shame is richly deserved. But Nixon held it together, even launching into a policy disquisition toward the end. The WaPo described Nixon’s public composure but also the gap between the private and public man:
Mr. Nixon’s brief speech was delivered in firm tones and he appeared to be complete control of his emotions. The absence of rancor contrasted sharply with the “farewell” he delivered in 1962 after being defeated for the governorship of California.
An hour before the speech, however, the President broke down during a meeting with old congressional friends and had to leave the room.
He had invited 20 senators and 26 representatives for a farewell meeting in the Cabinet room. Later, Sen. Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), one of those present, said Mr. Nixon said to them very much what he said in his speech.
“He just told us that the country couldn’t operate with a half-time President,” Goldwater reported. “Then he broke down and cried and he had to leave the room. Then the rest of us broke down and cried.”
Goldwater is yet another guy who’s hard to imagine weeping.
In the wake of Watergate, the whole country felt emotionally ravaged. We found respite in blandness: Gerald Ford’s good-natured bumbling and Jimmy Carter’s be-sweatered earnestness. But we did not find collective catharsis. That would wait until 1980.
The defining moment in presidential emoting came with the election of Ronald Reagan, who – though not much of a weeper – brought his entire actor’s armamentarium to the office. At the time, critics gleefully described Reagan as merely a “B-movie actor.” No matter. His acting skillz, modest as they were, earned him his “Great Communicator” moniker and enabled him to transform American politics in both substance and style. (Peggy Noonan had a hand in all this, of course, but her lines would have flopped, had Reagan been unable to fill them with warmth and passion.)
And yet, Reagan wasn’t much of a weeper. Serious presidential tears came into their own with the first Gulf War. International relations scholar Steve Niva views the end of the Cold War as a watershed in public political expressions of hegemonic masculinity. Suddenly, General Colin Powell was weeping at his high school reunion. General Norman Schwarzkopf raved about his love for opera. In an America that had shed much of its Vietnam Syndrome through Rambo and Reagan, it became possible, Niva argues, for American masculinity to be both tough and tender. (See Steve Niva, “”Tough and Tender: New World Order Masculinity and the Gulf War,” in The “Man” Question in International Relations, ed. Marysia Zalewski and Jane Parpart (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998), 109–28.)
The floodwaters sprung all the dams in 1992, as Bill Clinton teared up at every tale of woe on the campaign trail. He wept his way through his presidency, and we’ve never been the same since.
Niva’s excellent article explains just part of this transition. Reagan laid the groundwork. The first Gulf War expiated the shame of Vietnam and allowed American men to claim their manliness again as long as it was cloaked in khaki. But the “tender” part of Niva’s equation requires further explanation. Men like Clinton were simply of a new generation. They had defied conventional masculinity by growing their hair long, questioning the corporate rat race, fantasizing of careers in rock and roll – or at least playing the tenor sax on the Arsenio Hall Show. They had tuned in, turned on, and dropped out – or at least, they “didn’t inhale.” Perhaps most significantly, many men of Clinton’s generation had married a new generation of women. Some were feminists. A larger number were too timid for “women’s lib” but still warm toward egalitarianism. Most of these women expected and honored male emotion, though still within constraints.
The Boomers and subsequent generations are thus willing to grant our male leaders some slack in expressing public emotions, as long as it’s for a serious cause. Rachel’s clip shows how both Bushes and Mitch McConnell – powerful Republicans all – cry in public without losing face.
But none of them are crying about TARP. And that brings us back to Boehner’s tears, which are quite extraordinary even for a tough-and-tender post-Cold War leader.
Go to about 8:30 in Rachel’s clip. You’ll see him beg tearfully for the big-bank
failout bailout known as “TARP.” He has subsequently attacked those who voted for it, conveniently forgetting his own damp-eyed support.
Rachel nails him for hypocrisy:
As Americans we react to someone crying about children’s welfare because we think that it implies strength of his commitment to improve children’s welfare. It doesn’t always. When the new congress convenes and John Boehner is Speaker of the House, remember this: just because he’s crying about something doesn’t mean he’s going to fix that thing. Crying in public is neat. I’m all in favor. Crying in public, however, is not the same thing as fixing the thing that makes you cry.
I, too, think hypocrisy is the most likely explanation for the cavernous gap between Boehner’s tearful public pronouncements and his Grover-Norquistian actual policymaking.
But there’s an alternate explanation, and it’s a doozy. A few weeks back, Gregory House, M.D. (the TV doctor played by Hugh Laurie, my next-husband-in-spe) had a patient whose emotional expression was the exact opposite of what most people would feel. The “case” was medically incoherent, but it nudged the two brain cells in my head where I’d stored the concept of pseudobulbar affect. I’d read about this phenomenon – the expression of inappropriate emotions – when I was diagnosed with MS. (New readers: that diagnosis was later overturned, though it’s still my sword of Damocles.)
So could Boehner have pseudobulbar affect? If so, there’s a short list of conditions that can cause it. Multiple sclerosis. Amyloid lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Stroke. Parkinson’s and Alzheimers’. Traumatic brain injury.
To put it bluntly: Pseudobulbar affect only occurs in a brain that has suffered considerable damage. If Boehner has any of the conditions I mentioned, he merits your sympathy and mine, no matter what his politics. But he also might not be capable of serving as the third in command. People can suffer from pseudobulbar affect without having impaired judgment. I’d want to be sure of that, however, and not just assume it.
I still lean toward hypocrisy and manipulative tactics as the most parsimonious explanation of Boehner’s tears. I just wouldn’t rule out brain damage.
Either way, I question his fitness for the office of Speaker of the House.
No word tonight on where Glenn Beck gets his waterworks. At least he’s not President – yet.