Slate had an article yesterday by Libby Copeland discussing the significance of some recent episodes in which incoming House Speaker John Boehner has cried in public. Her interest follows an emotional speech Boehner gave on the night of the election a few weeks ago and more recently a series of conversations Leslie Stahl had with him in a CBS 60 Minutes profile in which he broke down several times:
Unfortunately I found Copeland’s analysis disappointing. She has chosen to look at the question through the lens of just two possible interpretations, both concerned with attitudes toward gender. Her concern is to decide whether Boehner’s crying reflects either:
- (positive) a less rigid view of gender rules within society, or
- (negative) a sexist double standard over what behaviors are acceptable for men and women in public.
As she tells it, these two interpretations are the dominant ways in which people are viewing Boehner’s behavior, and her conclusion is that the second is the one that is largely correct, not the first.
Her argument, however, is thin. She cites a Yale psychologist who claims that men more often cry for reasons of ‘sentimentality’, while women rarely do so. She defines sentimentality as reflecting things we care about – “flag, apple pie, children and family” and claims that this “is not a core emotion like sadness or anger.” Consequently, in her view Boehner is “crying from the strength of his convictions,” and this makes it socially acceptable.
To me, the first indication that the argument might be a little contrived lies in a comment she makes that our feelings about sports are an example of sentimentality and that “Women don’t usually cry over football games. Men do.” Men usually cry over football? Really? Perhaps the men Copeland knows are a little less representative of the overall male population than she thinks.
However she goes on to make this comment – “Sentimental crying doesn’t read as terribly personal. It’s a distanced kind of crying, an almost intellectual kind of crying.” I won’t try to argue whether there is such a thing as crying that is ‘distanced’, ‘intellectual’ and not very ‘personal’. I’m not sure I really understand what that would even look like. But when I look in particular at Stahl’s interview with John Boehner, I just don’t find it credible to view his spontaneous emotional reactions in those terms. What I see is simply someone who has genuinely deep and intense feelings about the experiences of his own life and who as a result reacts viscerally when faced with a need to talk about issues that remind him of that.
The question of whether this does or doesn’t make him a good person to be a national leader is one that others can debate if they want to. However, I think it would be absolutely wrong to suggest that there is anything negative about the emotions themselves or his inclination to express them so openly. Personally, I agree with Stahl’s assessment in a subsequent interview she did with another 60 Minutes staffer (see the clip below) that Boehner’s openness about his emotions makes him seem more likable. And I think it’s also worth noting the impression she got from spending time with him in person that he seems to be a very authentic individual and shows no sign of artifice.
As for Copeland’s assessment, she really does little to justify her conclusions. Her assertions about supposed male sentimentality are just that – assertions, and they really don’t do very much in my opinion to underpin her view that Boehner’s crying reflects some kind of male stereotype. On the other hand I think it’s reasonable to think that there has in fact been some shift over the years in public attitudes towards men showing emotion in public. Others have pointed out that what was perceived to be crying led to a significant loss of momentum in Ed Muskie’s 1972 bid for the Democrat presidential nomination. John Boehner may not have singlehandedly overturned attitudes to men crying in public but we can’t deny that (a) it’s sufficiently unusual that people think it’s something worth talking (writing) about and (b) despite that, it hasn’t prevented him from becoming arguably the second most important elected official in the United States.
As for whether there is a double standard in how society views what is acceptable behavior for men and women in public life, I think there may be some truth to that. But whether that is a positive or a negative thing is a whole different discussion.
Overall, I think what I find disappointing about Copeland’s article is that while she musters weak arguments to support a conclusion framed by her own assumptions about what the important questions are that Boehner’s crying raises (attitudes about gender), she seems to have gone out of her way to avoid even considering what I think is a more interesting, obvious and relevant issue: John Boehner gives the appearance of being a person who is motivated by a very deep and sincere desire to give all Americans an opportunity to live rich, full and prosperous lives regardless of where they come from.
Why is this important? Two reasons: Firstly, it stands in stark contrast to the stereotype that Democrat activists try to pin on Republican politicians – that they are motivated primarily by their connections to people of wealth and power. Secondly, it highlights what I think should be viewed as a potential basis for a more constructive approach to political dialog in this country. If it’s true that John Boehner really cares about ordinary people in the way that he appears to on the surface, and if there are Democrat members of Congress who really want to work constructively to advance the interests of all Americans, without being being locked in to a purely partisan model of political action (‘network liberals’ to use the term David Brooks suggested last week), shouldn’t they see Boehner as someone worth at least trying to sit down and work with to develop a more open and collaborative relationship in an effort to find common ground to solve the serious problems facing the country?
Yes, it’s true. I’m an idealist. But frankly there is an awful lot of cynicism in and about American politics today and I would argue that cynicism largely reflects a defect of leadership. In this environment, I think the country could do with a dose of idealism. So much of the dynamics of politics these days is framed around the notion of ‘fighting’, and for sure there are times when that is the right thing to do. But in my opinion, conflict is not a good context for doing difficult things in difficult times. And these are difficult times.