Campaign Trail Tears: The Changing Politics Of Crying

Tears seem commonplace in today's politics — John Boehner's weeping is well-known, and at a recent Iowa forum, two GOP presidential hopefuls broke down while describing personal struggles. But not long ago, public crying was considered political kryptonite. Take a look back at memorable public tears, and how the ways weeping is regarded reflects changing social norms.

Campaign Trail Tears

  • 2011: Herman Cain's Cancer Scare

    Brad Horn/NPR/YouTube

    Herman Cain at the Iowa Thanksgiving Family Forum on Nov. 19.

    During an event aimed at revealing the candidates' sensitive sides, moderator Frank Luntz asked candidates to share stories of their greatest personal challenges. The tears started with businessman Herman Cain, who told of having his faith tested by his Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis in 2006 and the way his wife supported him during his battle. "I told myself I wasn't gonna do this," Cain said, as he began to choke up.

  • 2011: Rick Santorum's Special Needs Daughter

    YouTube

    Rick Santorum in Iowa on Nov. 19.

    At the same Iowa forum, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum upped the ante, telling the story of his young daughter, Bella, who was born with a Down syndrome-like condition. Santorum recalled that when his daughter was five months old and fighting for her life, he withheld loving her so it wouldn't hurt him if she died. Bella, who is now 3, continues to battle health problems.

  • 2008: Barack Obama Cries For Grandmother On Eve Of Election

    Barack Obama cries while talking about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died on Nov. 3, 2008. i i

    hide captionBarack Obama cries while talking about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died on Nov. 3, 2008.

    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
    Barack Obama cries while talking about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died on Nov. 3, 2008.

    Barack Obama cries while talking about his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, who died on Nov. 3, 2008.

    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

    On the eve of the general election, Barack Obama wiped away tears as he lauded the grandmother who raised him, Madelyn Dunham, as one of America's "quiet heroes." The campaign announced earlier that day that she had died after a long battle with cancer. "She is going home," then-candidate Obama said to a crowd gathered in North Carolina. "So there is great joy as well as tears."

  • 2008: Hillary Clinton's Presidential Bid

    WMUR-TV/YouTube

    "I just don't want to see us fall backward," said a misty-eyed Clinton.

    For women, crying and politics can be a controversial mix. After losing the Iowa caucuses to Barack Obama in January 2008, Hillary Clinton teared up at a New Hampshire diner after being asked about the personal toll of running a national race. Considered a calculated move by critics and a humanizing moment by many female voters, Clinton went on to win the New Hampshire primary, keeping her presidential dreams alive. Before the diner moment, Clinton had said, "If you get too emotional, that undercuts you. A man can cry — but a woman, that's a different kind of dynamic."

  • 1996: Bob Dole's Uncontrolled Tears

    Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole's eyes well up as he is introduced by former President Gerald R. Ford at a Dole campaign event in Ohio in 1996.

    hide captionRepublican presidential candidate Bob Dole's eyes well up as he is introduced by former President Gerald R. Ford at a Dole campaign event in Ohio in 1996.

    Stephan Savoia /AP

    Before the 1996 campaign, Bob Dole was not a public weeper. But after President Clinton's common near-tears seemed to track well with women, "all of a sudden Bob Dole couldn't control his crying and did it often," author Tom Lutz told The New York Times. When then-Harvard professor Nicholas Jenkins was asked to interpret Dole's tears, he said: "It's become harder and harder to separate the reality of crying and the performance of crying in a campaign, because the crying as a genuine emotional expression and the crying as part of the new political theater have become harder and harder to distinguish."

  • 1987: Pat Schroeder Announces She Won't Seek The Democratic Nomination

    U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder wipes her eyes at a 1987 news conference in Denver. i i

    hide captionU.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder wipes her eyes at a 1987 news conference in Denver.

    Aaron E. Tomlinson/AP
    U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder wipes her eyes at a 1987 news conference in Denver.

    U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder wipes her eyes at a 1987 news conference in Denver.

    Aaron E. Tomlinson/AP

    In 1987, former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder memorably broke down upon announcing that she would not seek the Democratic nomination for president. The media frenzy that followed illustrated the tricky terrain for female candidates who show emotion. "Women across the country reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust," wrote The Chicago Tribune, a week after the incident. More than two decades later, Schroeder told USA Today she's still catching flak about it. "I want to say, 'Wait a minute, we are talking about 20 years ago.' It's like I ruined their lives, 20 years ago, with three seconds of catching my breath."

  • 1972: Ed Muskie's 'Snowflake' Tears

    NBC News/YouTube

    Edmund Muskie responds to criticism of his wife and allegedly tears up, an incident cited as the reason he later withdrew from the race.

    The stifled sob — or snowflake-induced tears — of presidential candidate Edmund Muskie was considered political suicide in 1972. As seen here, he tears up while responding to a New Hampshire newspaper's allegations that his wife was unladylike and that he was unfriendly to French Canadians. Muskie maintained snowflakes got in his eyes, but the crying incident is commonly cited as the reason he ultimately dropped his bid for president.

Elise Hu is the digital editor and coordinator of NPR's StateImpact network, which focuses on public policy reporting in the states.

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