Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Tracks of John Boehner's Tears

Pity the poor liberals. They spent decades convincing Americans that it was a good thing for women to be strong, high-profile leaders. So who comes along and grabs the mantle of the high-profile political woman? Not a liberal, but the dreaded Sarah Palin.

Then after years of creating space for men to be more in touch with their feelings, liberals have to watch the new Speaker of the House John Boehner -- he of the tough-guy politics and country club demeanor -- become the most emotive man in public life.

It's enough to make progressives want to go out and burn a bra.

In the meantime, the rest of the country is trying to figure out what it thinks about the new Weeper of the House.

Do Speaker Boehner’s tears – which flow with sentimental regularity -- reflect instability, or just someone who's not afraid to show his strong feelings about country and family?

Many Democrats are profoundly skeptical about his lachrymose behavior. They recall when the slightest suggestion of a tear in Ed Muskie’s eye sunk his 1972 presidential campaign.

They remember when a genuinely choked-up Hillary Clinton was accused during the 2008 primaries of crying crocodile tears for political advantage.

For former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tears are pretty much off-limits.

“If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes to politics—no—I don’t cry.”

And imagine if Pelosi did shed public tears over a political matter. She’d be instantly derided by the Right.

We give our male sports heroes a break when they choke up over the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat.

Moreover, we’re an era when bromances and male hugs are part of the culture. We’ve had a two-term Democratic president who felt our pain and regularly bit his lower lip to keep from crying.

But we remain ambivalent about how and when our political leaders shed their tears in public.

Elements of the mainstream media and political Left have been unable to resist taking a shot a Boehner, in spite of their own calls for a more humane politics.

"This guy has an emotional problem," Barbara Walters commented. "Every time he talks about anything that's not 'raise taxes,' he cries."

Samantha Bee went further on “The Daily Show,” saying Boehner was someone “who can go from zero to snot in 6.4 seconds.”

“The Republicans,” she intoned, “are in the hands of Captain Blubberpants.”

Beyond this mean-spirited humor, though, lies the genuinely important question of how OK it is for men to cry, in public or private.

“Telling a man not to cry is like telling someone not to go to the bathroom,” says author Warren Farrell. “Both serve the purpose of cleansing the system.”

We pay a huge price for this emotional constipation, Farrell adds: “Men's weakness is their facade of strength.”

Middlebury psychotherapist Thomas Jackson asserts that we teach boys at age 6 or 7 not to cry or show sadness – “one reason there’s a large amount of unacknowledged depression among American men.”

A symptom of that depression, Jackson says, is captured in the title of Terence Real’s seminal volume on male upbringing, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” (And, it goes without saying, men certainly don’t want to cry about it.)

Boehner’s tears are disconcerting for some people because it’s the first time they’ve studied him closely. We give more latitude to political figures we already know, such as both Presidents Bush, who were known to tear up from time to time.

As Warren Farrell notes, “If a man has proven his power already and then occasionally cries at a funeral or over his wife or children being sick or criticized, that can be a positive.”

No one would doubt, however, that when it comes to shedding a public tear, we’ve come a long way.

Even one of our most masculine public figures, Gulf War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, has put in a good word for the benefits of male tears. “I don’t trust a man who doesn’t cry,” he once said.

Everyone will have a different opinion about Boehner's tears. As for myself, I believe that while his tears may be oddly frequent, they humanize the man and the public debate.

And yet.

I look at the politics of the speaker and his party, and I see them headed in a less-humanizing direction – away from equality and toward tax cuts for the rich; away from healthcare reform and back to a system that denies health insurance to the needy.

Deeply felt emotions – the tears that come from compassion, for example – are intrinsically a part of being human. And if our politics lack compassion, sometimes our tears come out in other ways.

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