He has been called a “Buckeye Boo-Hoo,” “a crying clown” and “a teary-eyed rebel.”
Ever since Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, got all weepy on the Senate floor a few weeks ago, he has been widely mocked by pundits, wags, bloggers, editorial writers and just about everybody else with a sense of emotional superiority.
“Voinovich should be ashamed of himself,” declared the New York Post.
On the Internet, a Web site called consolegeorge.com is urging people to send the senator a tissue to help him wipe away his tears. (“Please, clean, unused tissues only,” the site helpfully advises.)
While it’s nothing new for politicians to become the laughingstock of an increasingly cynical public, even the experts are a little baffled by the outpouring of hostility directed at Voinovich’s outpouring of emotion.
“We don’t universally make fun of politicians when they cry _ that’s the interesting thing,” said Randolph Cornelius, a Vassar College professor and researcher who has studied human emotions, and weeping in particular.
In some cases, in fact, letting the tears flow can enhance a politician’s image. Think Rudolph Giuliani and 9/11. Giuliani’s emotional, misty-eyed public appearances in the days after the terrorist attacks softened his brusque image as New York mayor and helped him build needed political capital, Cornelius said.
“He was very strong, very forceful as a leader, very decisive,” Cornelius said. “But he also showed his human side, and that actually surprised a lot of people. His reputation just took an incredible turnaround at that point.”
Voinovich’s tears, however, seem to have diminished him in the eyes of some.
Supporters _ and the senator himself _ say he got all choked up while speaking out against John Bolton’s nomination as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations because he feared for the country’s future if a perceived bully like Bolton becomes a top diplomat.
His detractors have been far less charitable, suggesting that the senator has come unglued.
“Voinovich’s weeping is a little odd,” John Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said in an e-mail interview. “If he cried every time he thought of a brusque federal official, Lake Erie couldn’t hold all the tears.”
Public weeping, or at least what some thought were tears, effectively ended the presidential aspirations and the political career of Sen. Edmund Muskie, D-Maine, some three decades ago.
Talking to reporters in a New Hampshire snowstorm in 1972, Muskie defended his wife against what he considered vicious, unwarranted attacks during the Democratic primary. News reports noted that tears streamed down Muskie’s face.
Muskie later denied that he was crying and claimed the “tears” were actually melting snow. Regardless, the damage was done.
Since then, Americans have gotten a little more sympathetic to weeping politicians.
President Ronald Reagan, who for many was the epitome of manliness, teared up on several occasions, most notably at the funeral for the Challenger shuttle crew and during a speech in Normandy, France, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.
President Bill Clinton felt our pain and wept public tears to prove it. And the two Presidents Bush have let the tears flow freely on occasion.
Clearly, the public doesn’t have a problem with weepy politicians, “but they need to do it in the right way,” said Stephanie Shields, a psychology professor at Penn State and author of a book on the social meaning of emotion.
“Manful tears, showing you feel very, very strongly, that you are in control of yourself, especially if it’s about something sad rather than anger-provoking, are more likely to be seen positively,” Shields said.
Still, as Voinovich painfully knows, anyone who shows emotion in public is an easy target for ridicule, especially from enemies. “It’s an easy way to make fun of someone’s credibility or authenticity,” Shields said.
No matter how many times Americans see their elected leaders lose it, Cornelius said, one thing remains unacceptable: Women politicians aren’t allowed to cry, at least not in public.
Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado was ridiculed for shedding tears when she dropped out of the Democratic presidential primary in 1987.
And just imagine the grief that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., or any other woman currently in office would get if she wept the kind of public tears that male politicians have shed, Cornelius said.
“It would be death for their careers. They would be seen as either very weak or hysterical.”
(Reach Michael Collins at collinsm(at)shns.com)