Hillary and Mitt follow a long line of political weepers--but their tears may reveal more than just campaign showmanship

In 1788, the English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote that most people erroneously believed that “the emotions of the body” were “probable indications of the temperature of the mind.” But he didn’t buy it. “Oliver Cromwell,” he noted, “whose conduct indicated a heart more than ordinarily callous, was remarkably profuse in tears.” Cromwell was widely believed to be a strategic weeper, using one of the oldest tricks in the political playbook--something Hillary Clinton is being accused of for coming close to shedding tears in the last days of her New Hampshire campaign.

The meaning of tears, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and a politician’s enemies are always more likely to be skeptical than his or her friends. Most political tears probably lie somewhere between the two extremes, between what Bentham derides as the naïve belief in emotional sincerity and diabolically cynical Cromwellianism. Both Hillary’s near-tears and Mitt Romney’s waterworks--now that Romney has started crying once a week--are undoubtedly in part political calculation. But, paradoxically, they were also likely to have been fundamentally sincere. Tears are most often caused not by pure emotion, but by mixed feelings--something certainly not lacking in the flip-flopping, vote-pandering, identity-swapping world of campaign politics. No matter how calculated they may be, they help us understand the candidates who shed them.

Weepy oratory has been the norm in American history. Making people cry, sometimes by leading the way, has long been considered a basic political skill. Hamilton was famous for it, even Franklin sometimes indulged, and Jefferson used persuasive tears not just in political speeches, but in lovemaking, claiming that it was a “sublime delight.” Throughout the 19th century, politicians wept on the stump; Lincoln and Douglas, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan--they all cried.

The lachrymose style gradually began to wane in politics as we entered the twentieth century, high-water years in American culture for the stoic, hardboiled, manly man. At the end of this tearless era, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie was run out of the Democratic presidential race in 1972 for shedding a tear about the newspapers abusing his wife. Leading the attack on Muskie was then-Republican National Committee chair Bob Dole, who said the tears proved that Muskie “lacked stability."

Thirty-five years later, such talk is unthinkable. Both the Bushes, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and most of the presidential also-rans took to shedding the occasional tear in public. No one helped usher in this new tearfulness than Bill Clinton, who led the charge while feeling our pain, making wet eyes such necessary political equipment that even Bob Dole, who managed to stay dry for most of his first forty years in public life, learned how to weep for his 1996 campaign against Clinton.

When I published Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears in 1999, I observed that even as male politicians were being encouraged to weep, women still couldn’t. Pat Schroeder, for instance, after her emotional announcement that she was leaving the 1988 presidential race, got nothing but grief for her tears. I argued that men who cry in public prove that they are not too manly, that they are not prisoners of their own gender. Polling during the 1990s showed that women disproportionately approved of male politicians’ tears, saying it made them seem more trustworthy, less--they may as well have said--male.

Women in politics, I suggested, needed to stay dry-eyed for the same reason--to show that they were not stereotypically feminine, and therefore could be trusted not to be too emotional in their exercise of power. “Politics,” I wrote, “now has the distinction of being the central arena of public life in which men cry more often than women.”

With Hillary “doing the Muskie” in New Hampshire, as Maureen Dowd put it, my original thesis was proved both right and wrong. Some pollsters have tried to explain her ten-point swing there as “the Bradley Effect” (named after the complicated role of race in predicting Tom Bradley’s surprising loss in the California governor race in 1982). I, however, would call it the Bill Effect. Many voters have found Hillary off-puttingly “manly,” cold and calculating over the years. Ever the overachiever, Hillary had been over-performing her lack of feminine weakness so effectively for so long that she needed to counter her own anti-gender routine, and indeed, the biggest demographic swing between Iowa and New Hampshire was among women voters. Most women probably still shouldn’t cry in politics, but Hillary needed to, for the same reason that male politicians do: to prove she wasn’t all macho ambition and ruthless manipulation.

Watch the clip above. She did it perfectly. It was nicely modulated, just enough to signal a breakdown, but never letting go, eyes getting wet, a tremble in the voice, acknowledging to her audience that yes, they were seeing her in an unguarded moment, but stressing that it was not for herself that she cried, but for her country--our country. And, like a man, she moved on, half-apologizing with a grin for being so, well, “tired.”
Mitt Romney, like Hillary, strikes some voters as all ambitiousness and premeditation. Like an extracurricular activity on a college application, emotional displays help round them both out. But candidates have to choose battles with their own emotions wisely. Romney’s calls have been a bit questionable. Crying about his Mormonism was a mistake, as he did on at the end of his big speech on faith, since there are enough people who think that Mormonism is indefensible no matter how much emotional artillery is fired. He choked back tears on “Meet the Press” describing how he wept hearing the news, in 1978, that the Mormon Church would now admit black members. Here he followed the rules--crying for others, not himself, and crying about injustice and progress--but something was fishy. He refused to condemn the church’s pre-1978 racial stance and he started blinking away the extra tears as soon as he saw where the question was headed. On the very next day, December 17, he welled up when, after talking about the soldiers who have died in Iraq, he thought of his own five sons. This time the subtext was even clearer: Romney has been criticized for supporting the war while his sons avoided service, and also for suggesting that their work on his campaign entailed a similar public service. So what, exactly, was he crying about?

As I mentioned, tears tend to indicate a mind at odds with itself--an inner struggle. Researchers have shown that an infant produces tears when it guesses that it might get what it needs, but fears it might not. A severely neglected infant stops producing tears altogether. The mother at her daughter’s wedding weeps because two opposed emotions pull at her--the joy at the new union, sorrow at the end of a stage in her family life.

Facing looming defeat the next day in the New Hampshire primary, Hillary was probably feeling truly betwixt and between at that moment: The iron will that had gotten her so far might not be enough, she was realizing, and yet here she was, farther down this road than any woman in history. How do you feel, Hillary? She probably felt a lot of things, many of which cancelled each other out--a perfect moment for tears. The fact that voters saw in them a moment of heartfelt sincerity is not wrong, simply not the whole picture. They effectively showed her to be a person with real feelings and thus neutralized one of the standard attacks against her. Romney’s, on the other hand, seem at best a reflection of more complicated contradictions, at worst, pure political calculation. If I were his campaign manager, I’d say, suck it up, Mitt, and stop with the crying: Your conflicts are showing.

Tom Lutz is the author of Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears and is currently the director of the MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for Performance at University of California Riverside's Palm Desert Graduate Center.

By Tom Lutz