Are John Boehner's tears fair game for Post satire?
By Andy Alexander
John Boehner’s well-known tendency to weep makes him an easy target for satire or ridicule. He broke down twice in interviews last Sunday on "60 Minutes," crying when talking about preserving the American dream for children and again when discussing his marriage with his wife at his side. Amid the extensive dissection that followed on talk shows and the Internet, there were quite a few jokes at his expense (“Weeper of the House,” etc.).
The Post decided early this week to get in on the fun. From a “Why Boehner was crying” link on the washingtonpost.com homepage, readers were invited to submit photo "mashups," superimposing an image of a wet-eyed Boehner onto the image of something that might have prompted those tears. The Post selected more than a dozen mashups for an online gallery. In one, he's depicted watching the tear-jerker Disney classic “Old Yeller.” Another shows him crying at the image of Bristol Palin on “Dancing with the Stars.” Another has the perennially tanned politician weeping at the image of a tanning bed with an “out of order” sign. Yet another shows a glass of spilled milk.
They’re funny. But is crying fair game?
“Politicians can be made fun of, period,” said Tom Lutz, author of the 1999 book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. “Laughing, like crying, is a form of communication,” Lutz said. “And so, all is fair.”
Several readers disagreed. Two called to say it proved The Post has an anti-Republican bias. Another accused The Post of trying to generate Web site traffic by exploiting what she saw as Boehner’s “emotional problem.” A few Post newsroom staffers contacted me to express concern or ask my thoughts.
I agree with Lutz that Boehner, like all politicians, is fair game. I also think it’s important for The Post to experiment with these forms of audience engagement. There’s nothing wrong with being creative and inviting readers to share in some satire.
But although the Boehner mashups made me laugh, they seemed slightly juvenile and not quite in sync with The Post brand. By being featured on the homepage -- even though in the “Discussions” section, reserved for sharing viewpoints -- they seemed to carry the message that The Post, institutionally, had decided to make fun of Boehner's crying.
Hal Straus, one of The Post’s top online editors, whose group conceived the idea, disagreed. “I think it was a pretty good feature, and certainly one that was considered carefully,” he said. Straus noted that a look at Google search trends the day after the “60 Minutes” program showed robust discussion about Boehner’s crying. With that in mind, he said, The Post was eager to find a way to enter the “digital discussion.”
"A politician’s behavior is a fair topic for conversation,” he said. “We’re giving readers as many opportunities as we can to react in smart, creative ways.”
“We are very conscious of the need to deal with politicians and Washington subjects,” he added, “but not to do it in a partisan fashion.”
To avoid inevitable claims that The Post was picking on Boehner for partisan reasons, the feature might have included politicians from both parties who have had notable crying experiences. Even then, however, there’s the implication that there’s something wrong with crying.
As Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote on Wednesday: “These days, male politicians enjoy the freedom to weep – a bit, anyway. The time when Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign could be torpedoed by a few tears – or, perhaps, melting snowflakes – is long past. Tears are humanizing. I defy you to watch Boehner struggling to hold in his sobs and not like him better for it.”
But for the most part, Marcus said, female politicians “still have to hold it in.” They “understand that it’s treacherous to show any weakness or vulnerability.”
Writing about Boehner in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, Lutz said in an op-ed: “One of our fondest cultural myths... is that crying is a sign of sincerity or authentic feeling. No matter what we may know of crocodile tears, we continue to read weeping as a sign of true, pure emotion. All the research suggests something else entirely.
“Crying is often the sign of excruciatingly mixed emotion. Take the mother who cries at her daughter's wedding: She may be happy about the marriage and flooded with positive emotions — feelings of role fulfillment, of accomplishment, of pride, of happiness for her daughter. At the same time, she feels a sense of loss: A part of her life is over; she is losing not only a daughter but a purpose, a role.”
“Boehner's tears aren't hard to read,” he continued. “After analyzing hundreds of psychological experiments and sociological studies of weeping, hundreds of accounts of crying in different cultures and different historical periods, thousands of tearful moments in film and fiction and art, I have come to see that, like the mother of the bride, many of us weep because we are overwhelmed by contradictions.”
In an e-mail to me, Lutz said that Boehner weeps when he talks about children “because he knows that his policies work against today’s children being able to chase the American Dream as successfully as he did. When he worked his way through college for 7 years, the minimum wage was worth, in 2006 dollars, over $10 an hour. He voted against raising it from $5.15 an hour in 2006. He reached his American Dream because of the New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society America of his youth, and he is bent now on destroying that America and replacing it with the America of Warren G. Harding. No wonder he weeps.”
Lutz also noted the evolution of crying by politicians. “In the19th century weeping was considered one of the basic oratorical skills. Lincoln cried on the stump, and so did Douglas,” he wrote.
“When Muskie was chased out of the race in 1972, it was Bob Dole who led the charge (he was chair of the RNC at the time), saying it proved he was unstable, not tough enough to be president, and Dole himself never cried at political events in his first 45 years in politics.
“But after Bill Clinton made tearfulness popular again (it tracked well, especially with women voters), Bob Dole learned to cry at political events himself, and did so repeatedly in his 1996 campaign. I would be interested to hear if Boehner has ever cried on a golf course; I think his tears are more strategic (and this does not mean they are not sincere, or he is just acting; strategic in the sense that he decides it is okay to show them) than people are saying.”