Hold the Kleenex, please

Posted: Sep 05, 2003 12:00 AM

Forget his announcement tour. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's most consequential public act recently might be that he openly wept. This should make him the undisputed heir to Bill Clinton, and establish that Kerry, despite his reputation for aloofness, "gets it" -- "it" being the modern American imperative to mist up at the slightest instigation.

Barbara Woodman of Concord, N.H., told Kerry the other day that she had been laid off from her job, but was going to work to educate her children. "I don't care how many jobs I have to work, those kids are going to college," she said. It's a hard-luck story, but not exactly a tear-jerker. Kerry nonetheless wiped away a tear.

Public tears famously undid Edmund Muskie when he cried in the New Hampshire primary in 1972 about an attack on his wife. Thirty years and an ocean of public tears later, weepiness is now a kind of virtue. In contemporary America, the stiff upper lip has become the most unnecessary anatomical feature this side of the appendix.

But hold your Kleenex, please. This is a rotten development. It means we no longer value traditional manliness in quite the same way, have begun to consider sentiment more important than reason in our public life, and value moral laxity and excuse-making more than responsibility.

Bill Clinton led the way. A Southern Baptist who was attuned to Oprah and who had been in family therapy, Clinton stood perfectly at the crossroads of three trends that have put a premium on emotional display: the rise of confessional daytime TV, which is a kind of emotional pornography; the rise of Southern religiosity, with its focus on "the heart"; and the rise of therapy, which prompts nearly everyone to talk in terms of their emotional "baggage" and "issues," usually as an excuse for doing something stupid or untoward.

In his weepiness and his evocation of feeling, Clinton tapped into a philosophic wellspring that runs back to the philosopher Rousseau, who sought to create a public morality based on compassion - with unfortunate consequences. The political scientist Clifford Orwin has remarked: "The morality of compassion offers a relaxed alternative to moralities of self-restraint. Slackness in no way precludes compassion, and if the latter dictates being 'nonjudgmental,' then the slack have a head start on the rest of us."

It's no accident that Clinton, so prodigiously weepy, was also unable to control himself in other ways. When someone focuses too much on his own feelings and makes no effort to restrain them, he is unlikely to be moved by the call of duty or sacrifice, the virtues associated with traditional masculinity. In this respect, Clinton was the First Wimp.

Contemporary liberalism loves a weepy compassion-based politics precisely because it makes us see people as victims and makes it unlikely we will demand -- so hard-hearted! -- anything of them. It also degrades the role of thought in our political life, and puts a premium on doing what feels right, thus creating endless possibilities for empty or even counterproductive gestures of pity (such as the welfare system, prior to its reform).

Unfortunately, the trend toward weepiness is bipartisan. In 1996, GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole cried thinking about his hometown of Russell, Kan. His vice-presidential candidate, Jack Kemp, cried thinking about Bob Dole crying thinking about his hometown of Russell, Kan. Even President Bush has a tendency to get misty-eyed.

It's not true that real men don't cry (one study says men cry 1.4 times, on average, a month). But they should avoid doing it in public. It seemed that Sept. 11 might create a renewed ethic of manliness in America. Those brave firefighters that day didn't climb the stairs of the World Trade Center because they "felt like it," but because it was their duty. Alas, we're right back to crying being nearly obligatory for a presidential candidate.

It's enough to bring a grown man to, well, anything but tears.