Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) ended her explorations of a possible presidential bid tearfully. We are not talking misty eyes here. We're talking weeping. And that is provoking infinitely more comment than whether she should have run, or what she had to say about campaigning for the presidency.
Her display of human emotion has become something of a character test. The weepy wimp factor has been trotted out of the closet where it has been gathering dust since the 1972 presidential campaign of then-Sen. Edmund S. Muskie. The burning question that came out of her announcement was: Should she be crucified for weeping?
People who were dismayed about her tears seemed to feel that she had betrayed womankind by playing into the old stereotypes about women being too emotional and too easily distraught in stressful situations. Heavens, Schroeder might take to tears if arms control negotiations broke down. Does the world need a weepy woman next to the red telephone?
Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster, told The New York Times that she was "stunned" when she saw Schroeder cry. Said DiVall: "I certainly sympathize with the fact that it was an incredibly emotional moment, but it seems to me her inability to command her emotions when she was making an announcement about the presidency only served to reinforce some basic stereotypes about women running for office -- those stereotypes being lack of composure, inability to make tough decisions."
Schroeder, in interviews with reporters after her announcement, said that she began weeping when she heard a groan from the crowd in Denver right after she said that she would not be a candidate. "I wept out there, and that was not planned," she told USA Today. "That's not what I wanted to do."
I must confess that I am far less troubled by Schroeder's display of emotion than I might have been a few years ago. I would like to think that women, members of Congress included, have come far enough and proven themselves to be tough enough that they can be allowed to show a trace of human emotion and not have it instantly labeled a sign of weakness or emotional instability.
I remember the days when female bankers felt obliged to wear pin- striped suits and when women entering other professions did everything they could to adapt to a male environment. Women felt obliged to return to work a week or a month after a baby was born. I remember when women in newsrooms hesitated to even mention their families lest some suspicion might be aroused in the dark recesses of their editors' minds that their loyalties were treasonously divided between their job and their family. As for crying at work, well, if a woman wept she would be drummed out of the sisterhood. I would like to think that we have come far enough now that displays of emotion by women are at least as tolerated at work as displays of temper by men.
Schroeder's tears were not wholly inappropriate. She was sad, she was abandoning a quest, and she knew that she was deeply disappointing her supporters.
By contrast, the behavior of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) in New Hampshire was totally inappropriate. When someone in an audience asked him a question, he popped off and started hollering back at the poor fellow for no reason at all. Biden lied, and he got raked over the coals for lying. But not for his display of a very bad temper. I don't recall anyone suggesting that he was perpetuating a stereotype of men being ill-tempered creatures who should not be allowed near the red telephone. Nor do I recall anyone suggesting that a fellow with Biden's temper might blow up during arms talks and storm out.
Certainly, it would have been preferable had Schroeder not been overcome with emotion. Her tears gave ammunition to those who would perpetuate stereotypes about women, but people who are going to perpetuate stereotypes will do so with or without her assistance.
More to the point is that she had a wonderful opportunity to do something statesmanlike, and she blew it. She could have said that she was bowing out because her efforts had demonstrated that she was starting too late to win and she did not want to be a spoiler in the campaign and divide the party. That would have set a standard for others who might enter the race at this late date. Her tears also distracted from the point she made about the dehumanizing aspect of the campaign process: "I could not bear to turn every human contact into a photo opportunity."
That is a telling comment that might help explain the kind of people who are running for president these days, and winning.