Thirty years ago, Edmund Muskie's campaign for the U.S. presidency was cut short when he violated political decorum by weeping in public. During the New Hampshire Democratic primary, the Manchester Union Leader published a story describing his wife as "emotionally unstable." Outraged, he mounted a truck in front of the newspaper office and defended her with such passion that (The New York Times said) he "broke into tears."
Today his tears would attract sympathy and votes, but in 1972 they ruined him. Tears can change their meaning in a single generation. Crying may be natural, but the way we think about it reflects our culture. No man now hesitates to weep over the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan or the passing of the Queen Mother, and we can even weep with joy. Michael Jordan, no less, cried when the Chicago Bulls won the NBA championship in 1996.
The change in men's crying habits was completed by 1995, as Jeffrey A. Kottler explains in The Language of Tears, a how-to book about emotions. That was the year when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder and his unsuccessful prosecutors faced a press conference: "There stood Marcia Clark, the woman and mother, stoic and restrained, while her partner, Chris Darden, an African-American male, choked on his tears." Male crying, far from being shameful, has become almost mandatory. Phil Donahue recently remarked, "I think that people who never cry are like people who never laugh: There's something wrong with them."
Snow was falling as Edmund Muskie spoke, and he claimed that the drops on his cheeks were actually melted snowflakes. That did him no good. The Union Leader declared that crying proved he "lacked stability," like his wife, and Senator Bob Dole agreed that he was unstable. Of course, what was unstable was the status of tears, as Dole demonstrated 22 years later when he sobbed copiously at the funeral of Richard Nixon.
Muskie's feelings were obviously genuine, but the subject of tears often raises questions of authenticity and evokes the phrase "crocodile tears." Only humans cry: Animals, while possessing lacrimal glands that lubricate the cornea, don't shed emotional tears ("psychogenic lacrimation"), just as they don't blush. But crocodiles, uniquely, can look as if they're crying because their jaws, while opening to swallow prey, squeeze the lacrimal ducts and produce excess moisture. As early as the Middle Ages, weeping crocodiles reminded European commentators of human hypocrites. A metaphor was born, used by Shakespeare and everyone since to describe ersatz sorrow.
Bill Clinton, a virtuoso of the tear ducts, was often accused of fakery. Tom Lutz, in Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, recalls a videotape from a cabinet secretary's funeral, which showed Clinton joking until he realized a camera was observing him. Then he turned serious and tears filled his eyes. "Rush Limbaugh ran the tape in slow motion on his TV show numerous times ... sending his studio audience into howls of laughter."
Clinton's friends could have called on Émile Durkheim, the great sociologist, to explain that those responses were grounded in ancient practice. In The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim argued that among preliterate tribes, mourning was seldom spontaneous and grief was often expressed purely as ritual. Then Durkheim described Clinton's actions, eight decades in advance: "If, at the very moment when the weepers seem overcome by their grief, someone speaks to them of some temporal interest, it frequently happens that they ... take on a laughing air and converse in the gayest fashion imaginable."
The Bushes, it has slowly become clear, constitute a special case: an entire political family given to public crying. They raise the possibility (otherwise unknown in the medical literature) that tears may run in clans, like red hair or blue eyes. After President George W. Bush visibly fought back tears during his inauguration last year, his father, also teary, explained: "We Bushes cry when we're happy, we cry when we're sad."
Last week, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida broke down in tears at a conference on drugs when he thanked addiction treatment professionals for their support after his daughter's arrest on drug charges. He apologized. "Bush men always cry," he explained. "It's a little genetic problem I got from my dad."
Certainly the many splendid lacrimal performances of George Herbert Walker Bush lend credence to that thesis. A piece in Time magazine, while acknowledging he was never a match for Clinton, nevertheless classified him as a "frequent weeper." He cried when he heard Dixie Carter sing the national anthem, cried while listening to the Oak Ridge Boys perform on Air Force One, cried when Paula Coughlin (a victim of the navy's Tailhook sex-harassment scandal) told him about her ordeal. And, uh, he cried when his dog Millie's first litter was brought to him.
The authenticity question provides the emotional climax to a famous 1987 film, Broadcast News. Holly Hunter plays a TV news producer who often checks her watch to make sure she has a free moment and then breaks into violent sobs. But when she discovers that her lover (William Hurt) shed artificial tears on camera to intensify an item about rape, she drops him. Her own tears, while produced on schedule, expressed wretchedness; his were no more than a dishonest performance.
As crying grew more popular, two decades ago, not everyone welcomed it. Nora Ephron, in her novel Heartburn, has her Ephron-like narrator claim that tears are overrated, especially male tears. "Beware of men who cry," she says. "Men who cry are sensitive, but the only feelings they are in touch with are their own." She wrote that in 1983. Ten years later, she wrote and directed a paean to crying, Sleepless in Seattle, a notable event in the history of culturally induced sobbing. The characters confess to crying over Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant in An Affair to Remember while the movie audience cries over Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Ephron wasn't inconsistent, just selective. Certain tears are appropriate in some eras, not others.
Public tears get discussed so often that someone from another planet might believe we cry mainly before an audience. But most people know from experience that we cry when alone, for various reasons. A friend of mine once said, "In real life I never shed a tear, but alone in the darkness of a theatre I often weep." He guessed that his tears needed a clear focus, and life was too chaotic and contradictory. I agree. My own tear ducts respond most often to stories shaped by expert novelists, scriptwriters or journalists. They especially react when confronted with acts of kindness, fictional or factual, that are intended to modify a calamity in some redeeming symbolic way.
In Saturday's National Post, Christie Blatchford's piece on the sentencing of Randy Dooley's stepmother and father for his murder provoked my tears by describing Randy's Grade 1 teacher, who had tried her best for him in vain and was still there, loyal to the end. Kottler's The Language of Tears describes a woman who sounds like me, crying when she hears about teenagers who shaved their heads to express unity with a friend who lost his hair in chemotherapy.
Even in a story like that, pleasure accompanies tears. In 1880, in The Principles of Psychology, William James depicted the difference between "dry sorrow," a dead feeling experienced without tears, and psychogenic lacrimation. Dry sorrow is totally unpleasant, but actually crying brings excitement and "a certain pungent pleasure." Pain and pleasure normally stand at the extreme ends of human experience. Only tears bring them together.