On the 4th of March 1972, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, at that time the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, stood in the falling snow in front of the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader, New Hampshire’s leading daily, and denounced the paper and its publisher for attacking his wife.
The controversy that erupted in the aftermath didn’t concern the substance of Muskie’s grievances, but rather, the question of whether those things in the senator’s eyes were tears or merely snowflakes. The consensus was that they were tears (although Muskie himself strenuously denied it). And the further consensus was that those tears effectively ended his quest for the presidency. How could a crybaby become the Leader of the Free World?
Any number of pesky facts makes this occurrence ironic. Perhaps the most salient is that, despite the gleeful tut-tutting on the part of Republicans, their own nominee that year, who also happened to be the incumbent president, was quite a weeper himself. Richard Nixon had first cried in public 20 years earlier, when Dwight Eisenhower decided not to jettison him as a running mate, declaring “You’re my boy!” Immediately afterward, the vice presidential candidate collapsed in the general’s arms (to the latter’s visible chagrin; he never much liked Nixon anyway, and this sort of display must have struck him as decidedly incompatible with proper military bearing). And a mere two years after Edmund Muskie’s brush with those suspiciously salty snowflakes, Nixon would be seen crying several times, at a meeting with Republican senators who told him his presidency could not survive an impeachment trial, and at his prolonged, lugubrious farewell to the White House staff before he flew off to California.
But it’s also true that those imputations of emotional instability on Muskie’s part ignored history. Never mind Alexander the Great’s supposed blubbering at his having run out of worlds to conquer; that was millennia ago, and might in any case be apocryphal. But there are more recent precedents. According to his law partner and closest friend William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln was a ready and frequent weeper. And Harold Nicholson’s diaries record numerous mentions of Winston Churchill’s tears, in the House of Commons, the streets of Paris, and assorted other public venues, as well as in his private office. Neither of these two great men was widely regarded as a sissy.
But such was the prevailing contemporary view of Senator Muskie, such was the temper of the times. As Glenn Gould put it when describing his own adolescent tendency to cry at performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, “These days, needless to say, the tear ducts are out of practice — the psychologically meddlesome, and medically unsound, prohibitions respecting approved emotive patterns for the Occidental male have seen to that.”
But in the years since Nixon’s collapse, the floodgates, as it were, have opened. Muskie may have been the sacrificial lamb, but somehow, manly tears are no longer necessarily considered unmanly. Gerald Ford cried the morning after having lost to Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter is reputed to have cried on Air Force One when Jody Powell informed him that he was going to lose to Ronald Reagan (although that episode wasn’t, of course, on public view). In 2008, Hillary Clinton — not, admittedly, a man, but in some respects under more pressure to appear tough for that very reason — cried when trying to explain how she managed to keep campaigning in the face of setbacks and exhaustion. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner was as famous for his frequent weeping as for his not-to-be-found-in-nature skin tone. And in January of this year, Barack Obama wept when describing the children who had been victims of random gun violence. Times have changed. There may have been some jeering at each of these, but such reactions were rare and muted. Rather, shows of emotion were widely considered justified by circumstance, and if anything, evidence of the weepers’ admirable emotional openness.
And then we have Bill Clinton, the man who felt our pain. There is a notorious piece of film from April, 1996 that shows him leaving Ron Brown’s funeral, smiling and chatting amiably with an interlocutor; he suddenly notices that a camera is trained on him, whereupon his smile heads southward and he wipes away an invisible tear. Needless to say, gleeful Republicans made much of this show of apparent crocodilism. But in Clinton’s defense, it’s worth pointing out that he and Brown were close friends, not just political allies; Clinton was probably closer to Brown personally than to any other member of his cabinet . And I happen to know first-hand, from Brown’s widow Alma, that the night of that same funeral, Clinton went over to the Brown household and sat with the family for hours, reminiscing about Ron and offering what comfort he could. A gesture of respect and caring close to unheard of on the part of a sitting president.
To me, the moral of the story isn’t that Clinton is a hypocrite or a phony. Or at any rate, isn’t only a hypocrite or a phony. It’s a challenge, whether you’re Edmund Muskie trying to disguise your honest emotions or Bill Clinton trying to manifest them, to be in the public eye most of your waking moments. That situation must force a level of self-consciousness that makes spontaneity undesirable or, in other cases, impossible. Muskie’s frustration and rage might well have produced unwelcome tears. Clinton’s genuine grief might well have been briefly allayed in a passing companionable moment, even at a beloved friend’s funeral. Politics, so runs the cliché, makes for strange bedfellows. In our media-saturated age, politics and authenticity are barely acquaintances.