By Ruth Marcus
The speaker got weepy.
No, not her—him. The incoming House speaker, Ohio Republican John Boehner, turns out to be a veritable waterworks of emotion. First in the midst of his victory speech on election night, then, more extensively, in his interview last weekend with “60 Minutes.”
Boehner choked up about “chasing the American dream.” He choked up about his wife’s pride in his impending speakership. He choked up about choking up.
“No, no, my nose is running,” Boehner insisted unconvincingly as he reached for a hankie. He is so prone to tears, Boehner acknowledged, lip quivering, that “I can’t go to a school anymore. ... You see all these little kids running around. Can’t talk about it.” And, literally, he couldn’t.
It would be easy, from my political perspective, to get all snarky now—you know, he tears up about the American dream and then votes against unemployment benefits, sobs over children and then slashes school spending.
Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going there. I’ve got a soft spot for weepers.
Indeed, as my often-mortified family can attest, I am a fellow chronic crier. So I’d like to celebrate the lachrymose speaker-to-be and hope that he helps make the world safe for public crying. We who are ductally impaired may be the last remaining minority that it is socially acceptable to mock. You could hear the note of disdain in Lesley Stahl’s voice as she asked Boehner about his jags.
“What set you off that time?” she asked Boehner. “He cries all the time?” she asked Boehner’s wife, in the kindly tone of the family doctor concerned that one of the kids might be a tad slow.
Boehner purported not to be embarrassed by his blubbering, although it wasn’t completely convincing—see runny nose excuse above. “I know who I am,” he told Stahl. “I’m comfortable in my own skin, and everybody who knows me knows that I get emotional about certain things.”
And this gets to my second point: the paradox of public crying. As a general matter, it is considered more acceptable for girls to cry than for boys, less humiliating for women than for men. Think about the sympathetic reaction to Martha-Ann Alito after she fled crying from the Senate Judiciary Committee during her husband’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
For public figures, though, the situation is reversed. These days, male politicians enjoy the freedom to weep—a bit, anyway. The time when Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign could be torpedoed by a few tears—or, perhaps, melting snowflakes—is long past. Tears are humanizing. I defy you to watch Boehner struggling to hold in his sobs and not like him better for it. If anything, Barack Obama could benefit from a bit more crying.
Female politicians, by contrast, still have to hold it in—Hillary Clinton’s misty moment in New Hampshire notwithstanding. That was the exception that proved the rule: Few doubted Clinton’s toughness and the crying served to soften her image.
But other female politicians spanning the spectrum from Nancy Pelosi to Sarah Palin understand that it’s treacherous to show any weakness or vulnerability. Big Girl politicians don’t cry. They feel the need to—and this is my least favorite modern phrase—man up.
Consider how Pelosi brought down the gavel on Boehner’s tears. “You know what? He is known to cry,” she said after Boehner’s election night episode. “He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills. If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics—no, I don’t cry.”
Palin, likewise, doesn’t cry. Watch her club the halibut or shoot the caribou. I flipped channels after Boehner’s blubbering and watched Palin blast Kate Gosselin for getting all sniffly about the rigors of camping in the Alaska cold.
So I thought the ladies of “The View” had it wrong—and did women a disservice when they lit into Boehner. They should have celebrated his tearfulness and argued for gender equity in crying.
“Weeper of the House,” sniffed Joy Behar.
“This guy has an emotional problem,” said host Barbara Walters, she of the more-tears-the-better celebrity interview. “Every time he talks about anything that’s not ‘raise taxes,’ he cries.”
Barbara, you of all people should know better. Mr. Speaker, I’m with you. Have a hankie.
Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group