The Politics of Weeping

Once deemed fatal to presidential candidacies, it’s now an undisputed good.

Hillary Clinton’s teary moment while discussing the rigors of campaigning represents the third and final step in the evolution of crying on the presidential campaign trail.

As recently as 1972, tears were verboten. That was the year in which Edmund Muskie, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, angrily rebutted a letter published in the (then-pathologically right wing) Manchester Union Leader while standing in front of the newspaper’s offices. The letter alleged that Muskie had insulted French Canadians, a significant voting bloc in New Hampshire. According to the letter, Muskie, when asked in Florida how he could understand urban problems given that he hailed from Maine, a state that didn’t have many blacks, had answered, “No, not blacks, but we have Cannocks [sic].” The Union-Leader had responded with an editorial headlined, “Senator Muskie Insults Franco-Americans.” Officially, the offense was alleged to be Muskie’s use of the term Canuck. Unofficially, the offense was to compare French Canadians to African-Americans. Clearly intended to stir racist anger against Muskie, the letter was also pretty clearly a counterfeit—reporters were unable to locate its alleged author, one Paul Morrison of Deerfield Beach, Fla. Later it was revealed by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to have been a product of the Nixon White House’s dirty-tricks campaign.

Muskie was even more steamed that the Union Leader had reprinted an article from Women’s Wear Daily that depicted Muskie’s wife, Jane, as unladylike—a heavy smoker and drinker who swore like a sailor. In denouncing these two attacks in the Manchester paper, Muskie got worked up emotionally, and—this is where the Hillary comparison comes in—the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe reported that he shed tears.

To this day an arcane debate rages about whether the droplets on Muskie’s face were tears or merely melting snow. David Broder, who wrote the Post story, later confessed to some doubt on the matter and expressed regret that he’d written of “tears streaming down his face.” What’s relevant here is how preposterously high the stakes were. The simple fact that Muskie might have wept was enough to derail his candidacy. Although Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, his 46 percent showing (to George McGovern’s 37 percent) fell fatally short of expectations, in part because Muskie’s New Hampshire coordinator had earlier said  she would “shoot myself” if Muskie failed to get 50 percent.

The next significant weeping event on the presidential trail occurred in 1987, when Pat Schroeder announced that she was withdrawing from the race for the Democratic nomination. After doing so, she crumpled into her husband’s arms and wept. This time, the response was not censure but heated debate. Bernard Weinraub reported in the New York Times, “Some women were angry, others embarrassed. Many were sympathetic, and several were disturbed at what appears to be a double-standard on tears.”

The dividing line tended to be partisan affiliation. Linda DiVall, a Republican consultant, told Weinraub that Schroeder’s “inability to command her emotions when she was making an announcement about the Presidency only served to reinforce some basic stereotypes about women running for office—those stereotypes being lack of composure, inability to make tough decisions.” But Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women, said, “It doesn’t embarrass me at all. One of the troubles in the good old U.S. of A. is people think you shouldn’t show your emotions. Why not?”

With Hillary Clinton’s damp moment, we witness history deciding in Yard’s favor, not DiVall’s. On Slate’s women’s blog, The XX Factor, my colleagues  Melinda Henneberger, Emily Bazelon, and Meghan O’Rourke, none of them pushovers, all expressed warm approval. Even National Review Online defended  Hillary’s tears in a squib by John O’Sullivan, who reminded readers that Maggie Thatcher cried a couple of times when she was prime minister. The feminist debate that raged two decades ago will henceforth be settled in favor of crying. Indeed, in Clinton’s case, it’s proving not merely acceptable, but a positive good, because it’s being taken as evidence of a previously unrevealed humanity. The only matter left to debate is whether the moment was calculated or  sincere. (I believe it was sincere.)

The mainstream press is buying in, too. “Clinton Finds Emotion on the Trail,” declared CBS “Clinton Shows Emotion in Final Hours,” marveled the Boston Globe. “Clinton Turns Tough Again After Earlier Emotion,” reassured the Baltimore Sun. Far from apologizing, Clinton spokesman Jay Carson high-fived Politico, “It was a genuine moment that shows how passionately she feels about what is at stake for the country.” Hillary herself told Fox News, “People who have followed me during the course of my life know that, you know, I am a passionate person and I care deeply what happens to people.” She knows this was a winner.

Don’t tell Mitt Romney, or he’ll blub-blub from here to Super Tuesday.

[Update, 8:35 ET: Wouldn’t you know it, Romney puddled up last month on Meet the Press when talking about the day in 1978 when the Mormon church finally agreed to allow blacks to serve as priests.]