It was early 1989, and I was 25 and lucky enough to be among a crop of new White House staffers working for President George H.W. Bush. We got the word that the president wanted to see the communications team in the Roosevelt Room for lunch. I was nervously picking at my chicken salad when he told us, "Listen, I'm no Ronald Reagan. If I need a speech to meet the families at Dover"—the Delaware Air Force base where the bodies of fallen soldiers usually arrive—"don't give me a speech that's a '10.' I'll never make it through it. Give me a '5.' "
Bush—the World War II fighter pilot who ran 58 bombing runs—tears up very easily, and always has. That day, a little over a year after the infamous cover of Newsweek that called him a "wimp," he was warning us not to give him a speech that might risk a few tears. Speechwriters know that it's better to pull out all the stops on a sad occasion than to write a restrained, somewhat stilted eulogy. But we understood, and I can't think of a single occasion when Bush ever broke down in public as president (he only did years later, after leaving office.)
Ed Muskie was still alive the day of that luncheon, and he must have been on Bush's mind. When Muskie was a Democratic candidate for president back in 1972, the press reported that he'd been crying in the cold snows of New Hampshire. Muskie insisted they were snowflakes, not tears, on his cheeks but nevertheless withdrew from the race and effectively ended his career in politics. For the next 20 years, his example served as a warning to politicians: get verklempt and you'll be sorry.
But then along came Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton was the first politician to successfully survive the quivering lip and red eyes, misting up several times as president. He was followed later by Bob Dole tearing up while talking about his World War II days in the 1996 presidential cycle. George W. Bush choked up after giving the Medal of Honor to a war hero, and Mitt Romney broke down while watching a soldier's casket go by during the 2008 primaries. Barack Obama wept openly when his grandmother died, and now incoming House Speaker John Boehner has been nothing short of sobbing, first on election night and later talking to Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. His is a full-out bawl: face contorted, voice distorted, tears pouring. He has a hard time talking about the American dream and little children.
With Boehner, the tears seem authentic—no Broadcast News waterworks here—and in the end, he comes across as endearing. Stahl, who said she wanted to hold his hand while he was crying, reported that she asked him, "Do you try to control it?" And he said, "This is me, I am comfortable with who I am. Everybody who knows me well knows I cry and that's who I am." Asked whether there would be a public backlash against the airing of an interview so heavy on crying, Stahl responded, "I don't think the public is going to have a negative feeling about this at all. I do think public attitudes about crying have changed a lot." She's right: Rasmussen polls show Boehner's ratings at historic highs, with his favorability ratings far higher than Nancy Pelosi's were before she became speaker. And his ratings have continued to rise even since the election.
But as the song goes, it's different for girls. When Colorado Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder announced the end of her candidacy for president in 1987, she sobbed. The reaction was swift and severe: She was hounded by both men and women for breaking down. "Guys have been tearing up all along and people think it's marvelous," Schroeder said in an interview years later, adding that she'd started a file on weeping male politicians. The file grew so large she eventually threw it out.
So women kept a stiff upper lip for the next 20 years. Then, in 2008, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton briefly got teary after a voter asked, "How do you do it?" Suddenly she seemed like a real person, one who didn't want to go down in defeat and who had drawn upon her inner reserves to keep going. With a boost of momentum, she won the New Hampshire primary and stayed in the race longer than most expected.