It's a crying shame

Nearly four decades after Edmund Muskie's moment of sorrow, there's still too much meaning given tears

December 18, 2010

The year was 1964 when a future Sun editorial writer stood outside Randle Highlands Elementary School in Southeast D.C. with tears streaming down his cheeks as if a leaky tap had been bolted to his head. The boy did not wish to cry. He didn't feel particularly sad or hurt, the normal reasons why a 5-year-old would be tearing up.

But it was the first day of school, the first day entirely on his own without a parent nearby, and what is etched most deeply in his memory of the day is the embarrassment of being seen by his peers as a cry-baby. To add insult to injury, a teachers noticed and asked his older brother to stand by him in line. (As if his older sibling were a comforting presence. More likely he was glad to have the ammunition for teasing.)

What has been learned in the intervening 46 years is that some people are prone to tears and some are not. Tears of sadness or happiness, humiliation or pride, it doesn't really matter. At times of great emotion, good or bad, the ducts of the tear-prone will open on their own accord. Other people hardly muster a tear after dicing a 10-pound bag of onions.

Incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner is obviously in the former camp. During an interview broadcast on "60 Minutes" last weekend, he cried when he spoke about his upbringing and when he talked of his concerns about schoolchildren (a topic about which he tears up so reliably that he confessed to Lesley Stahl he no longer visits schools). On election night, the Ohio Republican cried when he spoke publicly to his supporters.

Some have criticized Mr. Boehner for this display. The women of "The View" mocked him. Co-host Joy Behar dubbed him "Weeper of the House." Comedian Jimmy Fallon did a tearful impression of him on "Late Night."

Others have suggested the tears humanized a man with a lot of hard edges on matters of taxes and Democrats. The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus rose to his defense. So did MSNBC's Rachel Maddow who noted that whenever politicians cry it "shows us what they feel passionately about, and what's wrong with that?"

But both sides miss the point. That Mr. Boehner is prone to tears is no more an insight into his soul than if he were prone to twitching. It's likely an involuntary reaction to emotion. There may be some politicians who can muster tears as a prop, of course ( Bill Clinton certainly had awfully good timing on that front) but the speaker-elect appears to have the uncontrollable variety.

He may have the outward appearance of a softie, but it isn't necessarily so. Just as those men (and women) who can stand stone-faced at weddings and funerals are not necessarily heartless because they aren't sobbing into their sleeves.

What can we construe from tears? Absolutely nothing. And yet people will do so, often unfairly. If the society's attitude toward men who cry has lightened since the days of Edmund Muskie was castigated for showing emotion while defending his wife outside the Manchester Union-Leader, one can only imagine the reaction if Speaker Nancy Pelosi were prone to weeping. The right-wing would have been downright tearful over their good fortune; women in power can't afford to look soft.

This isn't discrimination by gender, it's discrimination by lacrimal gland secretion. It's the equivalent of assuming those who wear glasses are smart. Put in contacts and they lose 10 IQ points. Leave them in too long and suddenly you're Blubbering Bob or Whimpering Wanda.

Those of us who cry at movies, graduations, or even while looking over family photos have learned to deal with such treatment. Still, it was disappointing when last fall, the 10-year-old's 5th grade teacher called to let his parent's know he had cried at school — too readily in her opinion.

"Is something going on at home? Is he all right?" Perhaps Little John Boehner's parents got a similar call when he got shouted down in the cafeteria for complaining about having to pay a sales tax on candy. A display of tears didn't make him sensitive or weak or different from anyone else on the planet, just in need of a hanky.

—Peter Jensen

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