Time was, politicians hid their real feelings. Whether presented with a national disaster or a personal scandal, most remained as stony as Mount Rushmore. But now everyone from the ordinarily steely Hillary Clinton to the lachrymose John Boehner is breaking down. Here are some memorable crying incidents:
If ever tears could be blamed for undoing a presidential campaign, it was in the case of Edmund Muskie in 1972. The Maine Democrat was a frontrunner for his party’s nomination until he appeared to cry during a New Hampshire speech that criticized newspaper attacks on his wife Jane’s character. While some papers reported that the candidate had cried openly, he claimed his face had only been wet from snowflakes. Muskie’s perceived emotional outburst helped cost him his lead over George McGovern—and eventually the nomination.
Big girls aren’t supposed to cry, at least in politics. So when congresswoman Pat Schroeder broke down in September 1987 while announcing she had decided not to run for President, she was vilified by the media, and Nora Dunn poked fun at her in a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Schroeder’s speech seemed to scare female political figures away from the Kleenex, from Nancy Pelosi, who declared recently that “when it comes to politics—no, I don’t cry,” to Sarah Palin, who remarked on the “double standard” when it comes to women and tears: “I’m sure that I would be knocked a little bit for that.”
Bill Clinton bears some responsibility for the tears trend. While his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, warned staffers not to make his speeches too emotional, Clinton cried regularly in front of the cameras. He was even mocked by Rush Limbaugh for a supposedly staged crying moment at Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s funeral. Two decades later, Clinton is still at it: Despite professions to reporters that he wouldn’t cry at daughter Chelsea’s wedding, he wept while dancing with her.
By the time Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2008, crying on the campaign trail was old news. Everyone from Bob Dole (one of Muskie’s ridiculers in ’72) to Mitt Romney had broken down in public—Romney on Meet the Press in 2007 and again a day later while talking about his sons in New Hampshire.
There must be something in the Granite State’s water, because it was in New Hampshire that Hillary cried in public for the first time, after a woman in a coffeeshop asked her how she kept going every day. “I just don’t want to see us fall backward as a nation,” Clinton said, choking up. Reactions were mixed, although the moment seemed to humanize her and is credited with aiding her victory in the primary days later.
Except for TV’s Glenn Beck, it’s hard to think of a public figure who could out-cry John Boehner. The Republican leader has always been prone to tears, but since his party took back the House in November, he’s had more breakdowns than a Lifetime movie.
A weepy 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl in December showed the speaker falteringly talking about how he can’t stand to see children anymore because they remind him of his humble beginnings: “I used to go to a lot of schools. And you see all these little kids running around. Can’t talk about it.”
Following Boehner’s tearing-up at the State of the Union address, the House speaker has developed such a reputation that “John Boehner crying” is now the third-most popular search for his name on Google, ahead of “John Boehner smoking” and “John Boehner tan.”
This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.