Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Optics of Politicians Crying

One of the more endearing personal habits of our current President, Barack Obama, is his obvious love for babies and kids — so much so that there are multiple Tumblrs devoted to images featuring POTUS and little ones. All politicians take baby-kissing photos, of course, but President Obama has been caught on camera chasing, making faces at, and being touched by adorable kids — or laughing when they throw tantrums — too many times for his particular affinity not to be made clear. If I were an amateur psychologist, I’d guess that he enjoys the lack of deference and formality children show in political settings, as well as their cute cheeks and chubby fingers.

Regardless of the reason that the President loves kids, he clearly does: as a result, his pain over the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 20 small kids and six adults — and his deep frustration over political inaction in its wake — has been palpable for all the years since the attack. Every speech he makes about gun violence has more and more rawness behind it: a mix of urgency, exhaustion, impotence, pleading and emotion. The zenith of this trajectory occurred this week when he spoke about his new executive action on gun control, and once more got teary-eyed when he arrived at the obligatory mention of Sandy Hook. 

Observers were struck by his candor, and many found the moment quite powerful. But immediately, “tear truthers”emerged on Fox News and elsewhere, insisting the moment was staged artifice. This shouldn’t surprise us since there is an active (and disgusting) Sandy Hook truther movement out there already, but this particular conspiracy theory had a particular cynicism to it. FOX was particularly fascinated by the idea that the deaths of 20 innocent kids in Connecticut would regularly trigger the President’s emotion while terrorism would not.

“No matter how opposed to Obama’s policies some people may be, or how cynical their politics, they have to at least acknowledge and respect the raw authenticity of that emotion. Or so you would think,” said The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah, offering a bracing corrective to this poisonous brand of punditry. Noah’s much-circulated segment on the emotion-doubters lives up to Jon Stewart’s best work, starting out funny but ending at a quite bitter moment of truth-telling.

“Are you [bleeping]ing kidding me? Shedding tears when you think of murdered children is ‘not really believable’?” Noah asked his conservative counterparts, quoting FOX’s Meghan McCain. “You know what? There is something here that is not really believable: the fact that the rest of us have to share the title of ‘human being’ with you. ” FOX’s pundits clearly refused to draw the obvious, observable conclusion in regard to Obama’s tears, taking into account a longstanding pattern of behavior. More importantly, they also all but explicitly stating the disturbing idea that politics is, by necessity, theater and nothing more. This is nihilistic, and is more a reflection of FOX’s collective view of politics than it is a critique of the President.

Still, media controversies over politicians shedding tears are hardly new. Everyone discusses the famous incident when candidate Edmund Muskie (maybe) cried in advance of a New Hampshire primary. But the complex optics of politicians showing emotion has continued through our present era.  When the extremely lachrymose John Boehner was on a particular crying jag, women observers frequently and dryly noted that if Nancy Pelosi had gotten choked up every time she thought about “The American Dream” as her male and GOP counterpart did, she’d be laughed out of DC. Gail Collins unpacked some of the teary double-standards in a column about Boehner, explaining that his lack of policy-related empathy actually helped him  — it’s the dreaded combination of tears and actual compassion that hurts Democrats.

Besides the crying gap between men and women, there’s also one between Republicans and Democrats. On the one hand, you have the folks who can’t afford tears because it makes them look weak, and on the other, the people who are presumed to be tough and hard-nosed, for whom crying is an attractive sign of complexity.

Boehner is opposed to extending unemployment benefits for the jobless, and he wants to kill off the law that guarantees health coverage to all Americans. So you know when he starts weeping when his wife says she’s “real proud” of him, it’s not a sign of softness.

While Boehner can weep narcissistically whenever he thinks about how far he himself has come, Obama’s tears of empathy for tiny dead children are met with right-wing gender policing and contempt.

An interesting reverse of this gendered rule was a particular moment involving Hillary Clinton. In advance of another New Hampshire primary, this one in 2008, Clinton got a little misty (but didn’t cry) and actually regained quite a bit of ground with voters. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd speculated that Clinton had spent so much time trying to be tough that the tears helped remind voters of her human side.

“Hillary did feel she needed to prove her masculinity…”  Dowd wrote of the candidate’s bellicose Senate voting record. “Yet, in the end, she had to fend off calamity by playing the female victim, both of Obama and of the press.” This is a characteristically harsh and gender-normative reading from Dowd, to be sure. But it’s also an analysis that prefigures Clinton’s softer, more human and more nakedly feminist approach to her political image in the 2016 race.

In fact, Obama isn’t the only one who has cried talking about gun violence of late. Clinton also got emotional back in October when she unveiled her own gun control plan — specifically, when she cited the Sandy Hook massacre. Interestingly enough, that moment didn’t cause the same media furor as either her previous emotional moment or the President’s this week, showing that on some level she’s  been successful at re-setting expectations for her own emotional output. But don’t expect that to last once she becomes the nominee; her emotions will be put back under the microscope.

Sandy Hook was a national tragedy whose devastation many of us are still feeling, and the fact that even totally composed politicians are reduced to tears when discussing the incident is hardly a surprise. But the “controversy” around Obama’s reation shows that politicians’ feelings, even when clearly genuine, will always be subject to a particular level of scrutiny. As the election continues, the media’s reaction to moments of distress from candidates will be a good barometer of how issues of gender, strength and empathy are shaping the dominant narrative — and of where that narrative needs to be challenged.