Below the Fold: Tears for Fears and the Banality of Public Emotion in American Political Life

Michael Blim

Tears work in American politics, as events in New Hampshire last week show. But they didn’t always work, as a 1972 presidential contender Edmund Muskie learned in New Hampshire 36 years ago. They cost him his presidential bid, even as they propped up Senator Clinton’s.

What has happened in America politics and public life that tears have become so acceptable, even gratifying? Rather than considered mawkish, a sign of instability, a feint or worse, crying now signifies something good about the character of someone who does.

Americans generally need have no fear of suffering from blocked tear ducts. Turn the camera on, and we turn the tears on. Happy people cry, and sad people cry. Soldiers cry, police and fire fighters cry, criminals and victims cry, and game contestants cry. Celebrities cry. Politicians cry. We cry with them.

Sports figures positively blubber. Jemele Hill, an ESPN writer, reacts to sports tears without pity and with a little spice in her May 15, 2007 commentary “Crying Etiquette of the Sports World.” Here are some of her rules:

1. Don’t cry at a news conference where you’re announcing to the world you’ve cheated on you wife (I would add or used steroids).
2. Don’t cry when you’ve been traded.
3. Don’t cry at practice.
4. Don’t cry before the game is over.
5. Don’t cry on camera if hurt; wait until you hit the trainer’s room.

Tears of joy, tears of defeat, tears of pain, and just plain tears. Some tears say, “I am one of you.” Others say, “I feel your pain, or joy, or loss” …or whatever. Some ask for pity; some are pitiable.

Whence all this crying in America, especially in politics? In Italy where I have spent a lot of time, politicians don’t cry, and would be considered addled or a bit ridiculous if they did. Contrary to the weepy Italian stereotypes of movies, women in black throwing themselves on biers and Neapolitans male or female caught in sweaty, tearful embraces, and so on, Italians don’t expect politicians to cry. They chalked it up to senility when one of their favorite Presidents, the octogenarian Sandro Pertini, wept every time he touched the Italian flag. As Machiavellian as Italian politicians are, crying is not part of their playbook. It is a sign of weakness, of fecklessness, and given that there is so much “feck” in Italian politics, better not to show it, as Mark Twain said, and remove all doubt.

In our neck of the woods where politicians are fecking up big time — let’s let two wars and the lust for another stand in as a placeholder here – crying sometimes helps them get over rather than get sown under.

Why? Perhaps like many “68ers,” for me, it all begins with Nixon, the Republican cloth coat, and the blessed dog Checkers. Nixon while Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952 was caught using money from a slush fund his supporters had created to defray expenses not covered by his Senatorial allowance. To prevent Ike from tossing him off the ticket, Nixon gave the first of his many bathos-soaked self-disclosures for which he is justly famous. One scholar considered the so-called “Checkers” speech one of the top 100 speeches in modern American rhetoric.

Well…most speeches in American politics today come down to comments such as “I did not have sex with that woman.” Let’s just say the barrier has been lowered a bit, so that even Nixon’s vicious rambles outclass the mumbles of the current bunch.

To recall, Nixon had not only received the slush money, but some kindly Texas dog owner had sent so opportunely a cocker spaniel along for his kids:

“One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something – a gift – after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

Nixon’s mouth quivered, his eyes wetted, – and yes, as usual, he perspired. Afterwards, he broke down in sobs. But Americans had begun to get a taste for exhibitionism and self-pity. Even Ike, the great general, “welled up” when he saw Nixon’s speech in Cleveland that night. “Dick, you are my boy,” Ike announced with Nixon at his side the next day in Wheeling, West Virginia, and Nixon broke down again in the weep seen round the world.

It was not always thus. Who would want to ruin a rhetorical high point with a weep? Would William Jennings Bryan, taking a Democratic convention by storm in 1896 with his “Cross of Gold” speech have stopped for a good cry? Teddy Roosevelt and the boys after San Juan Hill? Woodrow Wilson after the Fourteen Points? It’s said that Cal Coolidge could barely stay awake, let alone cry.

Even dogs didn’t make politicians cry before Nixon. For Franklin Roosevelt, it was all in a day’s work of skewering Republicans in 1944 when they came after “his little dog Fala:”

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as the old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house – from laughing.

Thanks to Dick Nixon (alas, poor Dick, we knew thee well), his bathos is now our own. He showed us how to ignore politics and enjoy the spectacle of personal abasement – something the former President Clinton practiced rather ham-handedly, and only just in time to save himself from an impeachment conviction.

Now, Senator Clinton. Does it run in the family, the bitten lip, the wetting eyes, or was it simply a Monday morning desperation Hail Mary? Well, tears for fears — and it worked.

Permit me to recall that famous line of the Army lawyer James Welch responding to a red-baiting attack on a soldier by Senator Joseph McCarthy in April, 1954:

“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency … at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”