Debating The Tissues: What Makes A Good Cry

Above, a weepy Pat Schroeder gets a hug from husband James after she says she won't run for president. Left, candidate Ed Muskie blamed snow for his tearful 1972 speech.
Above, a weepy Pat Schroeder gets a hug from husband James after she says she won't run for president. Left, candidate Ed Muskie blamed snow for his tearful 1972 speech. (1987 Upi Photo)

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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

It was the context of the tears that surprised people -- in the midst of Wednesday's confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee, a setting that could not be more rehearsed. We're not used to spontaneous expressions of emotion on C-SPAN.

It's a throwback, but men tend to get all rubbery when a woman cries. With tears, a woman is transported to the land-beyond-reproach. (The truth is, if Hillary had only cried a little, back during The Troubles, she might not be seen as the ice queen.)

Anyway, Martha-Ann Alito sniffles and steps out of the hearing room after her husband, Samuel Alito, has been interrogated by Democrats, and the next thing you know, the "Today" show is asking: "DEMOCRATS GONE TOO FAR?"

So here's the new Republican script: The Democrats are bullies. We wanted to ask Martha-Ann about that, so we caught her in a hallway of the Dirksen Building, coming out of a door labeled SENATORS & STAFF ONLY after her husband's questioning ended yesterday. She looked ecstatic, maybe because her husband's part in the whole thing was over. A couple of people came up and gave her hugs. We introduced ourselves.

"Next time," she said sweetly, as if there would be a next time, as if the committee's questioning hadn't just ended, as if she couldn't quite bring herself to say, N o .

The crying wife is sacrosanct, an argument-ender, and more than a little retrograde, which is why we think of "I Love Lucy," and Lucy dissolving into tears when Ricky wouldn't let her buy a new coat or some such thing.

Between the "bullying" Sen. Edward Kennedy and the "loving spouse of a smeared nominee, most American people would side with a loving spouse," says Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, whom we found outside the hearing room.

On the other hand, said Ellen Murphy, listening to Air America on her headphones just outside the Hart Building, the reason the Democrats keep pounding at Martha-Ann's husband is " 'cuz the man won't answer."

The power of tears prompted lefty bloggers and Internet commentators to speculate that Martha-Ann might have faked them, that the tears were a "Rovian cue." Translation: She who cries, wins.

What are the rules about crying in public? Someone should figure these out, because we're stumped. Crying is seen as wimpy, unless it's seen as a sign of strength. Former congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who memorably broke down upon announcing that she would not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, leading to assumptions that she was too emotional, says that after the incident, she kept a file of all politicians who cried publicly.

"I never knew why it was a big deal that I cried, but not when Margaret Thatcher cried," she says.

Ronald Reagan used to tear up all the time, she points out, and that seemed to be okay. But 1972 presidential candidate Ed Muskie's misty-eyed appearance outside the Manchester Union Leader came to symbolize the decline -- and eventual demise -- of his once-front-running campaign. (Muskie, who died in 1996, later claimed that snow had blown in his eyes.)


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