The Politics of Tears

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Sep 10, 2007 12:01 AM
The Politics of Tears

George W. Bush, stopping in Iraq's Anbar province en route to Australia, vowed that any decision to bring American troops home from Iraq must be made from "strength and success, not fear and failure," but a new book describes the president as a "big crier," in private, not in public. Is this crying from strength?

"I fully understand that the enemy watches me, the Iraqis are watching me, the troops watch me, and the people watch," he told Robert Draper in an interview for the reporter's book "Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush." The president was not ashamed to say, "I do tears."

This reflects a considerable change in the cultural perception of male tears. Not so long ago most men could count on one hand the number of times they had shed a tear or two, usually on the death of a parent, and then only when nobody was likely to see. Only 35 years ago a tough-minded Edmund Muskie was the favorite moving steadily toward the Democratic presidential nomination when he was photographed weeping on a snowy day in New Hampshire over a slur against his wife. He claimed a snowflake hit his cheek, but his manly image was compromised. His campaign promptly collapsed. Longfellow might have consoled him with the observation that "Into each life some snow must fall."

So what's different about men today? The public is accustomed to watching both male and female weepers on the television screen that it interprets tears to fit the perceptions already held. Many Americans say they dislike the way George W. talks about his religious faith, but few doubt his sincerity. "I've got God's shoulder to cry on," he recently said, and he sounded both authentic and moving. Nor did it hurt him when a tear ran down his cheek at a Medal of Honor ceremony for a fallen Marine. He's not a man to manipulate emotions in an exercise of hypocritical sentimentality.

Bill Clinton could cry on cue, and often did. When he was caught off guard laughing spontaneously leaving a memorial service for Ron Brown, his secretary of commerce, he spied a camera and quickly turned to face it with tears visible in his eyes. His critics loved it, and his fans, who could appreciate a great performance, dismissed the incident as "Bill being Bill."

But no matter how much sensitivity we now accept in male politicians, women still must tread lightly and gingerly. Hillary knows she can't give in to emotion in public if she expects to be the first female commander in chief. It's tough, because she naturally appears cold and scripted. Her staff pushes her to show the spontaneous warmth they say they see in private. (Isn't that just like a woman?) Women inevitably shine in smaller, more intimate groups; men show off best in large and impersonal groups.

Women who aspire to leadership best not admit to "doing tears" no matter what the circumstances. Despite the hypocrisy and political dissembling, it has always been easier and more politically acceptable for Hillary to attack the "vast right-wing conspiracy" than to judge her husband's adventures in boudoirs with emotion.

Contemporary sexual politics has altered double standards. Men more than women get away with showing sensitivity. Bill Clinton's latest book is about charity and the importance of giving, exploiting a "soft issue" by demonstrating his "soft side." The risk for Hillary is that she will appear as too tough to suit her fans on the left. They want her to cry over Iraq, but that could be her "Muskie moment."

Ironically, in the popular culture, feminism and equal rights have dissolved much of the stigma of "sensitivity" in strong men, but such stigma is reinforced in women. Sensitive male heroes have flourished in movies, with James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift setting the standard for the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Virile heroes who cry on screen -- think Mel Gibson or Sylvester Stallone -- are big at the box office and win critics' awards. But neither women nor men in the Counter Terrorist Unit in the popular television show "24" get any leverage with tears. We'll see how "24" depicts a woman president this season, on the eve of the presidential campaign of '08.

In "Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears," Tom Lutz writes that men cry to show they're not too manly and women repress tears to show that they're not too girly. But it's actually just a matter of what you need to prove. Call it "The Crying Game," for crying out loud.