By Kris Kitto - 01/15/08 06:31 PM EST
She laughs, she cries, and the whole world watches.
So New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t shed crocodile tears on the campaign trail last week.
Observers characterized it as more of a “misting over.” But the dam did break on the airwaves as pundits speculated about the Democratic presidential candidate’s sincerity. Detractors concluded the outpouring was scripted. Supporters determined her glossy eyes were perfectly real.
Which leaves us here: Is there an art to public displays of emotion for politicians? How do we know whether a presidential candidate’s supposed soul-baring moments are rehearsed or genuine? Be it a growl, a passionate kiss, a cackle or unrestrained boo-hooing, are politicians showing emotion ever just politicians showing emotion?
Yes, experts say. Politicians — believe it or not — are human. The trouble is proving that to a skeptical public.
Clinton’s vulnerable moment came after being asked by a voter, “How do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?” during a final campaign push for the New Hampshire primary.
“It’s not easy,” she answered. As she continued, she choked up and dropped her chin into a propped hand.
But this is not an isolated incident, and it’s not about just tears.
Mere months ago, Clinton was taken to task for unleashing what some described as an android-like cackle. Before her, Howard Dean let out a primal scream on the 2004 presidential campaign trail that attracted scads of attention. Many analysts regard it as the true fall of his campaign. Al Gore planted a wet kiss on wife Tipper while running for president in 2000 that came across as awkward and kept journalists busy for days. Former Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) has yet to hear the end of her blubbery withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race. And Ed Muskie released a tear that might have been the denouement of his 1972 presidential bid.
Joseph Hacker, a senior lecturer for camera performance at the University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, offers some insight to Clinton doubters.
“A person can be crying but not necessarily about what they say they’re crying about,” he says, reminding us that actress Bette Davis was known for saying she would stealthily yank out a nose hair if asked to cry on cue.
For the record, though, he feels that Clinton was authentic. “When I heard her, I thought, ‘This woman is exhausted,’ ” Hacker says.
In Dean’s case, he wasn’t exhausted as much as he was excited. Eric Salzman, a reporter for CBS who was following Dean at the time of the scream, recalled the candidate’s communications director circulating among reporters before his Iowa caucuses concession speech, saying, “He’s going to be fiery.”
That was, of course, an understatement. General consensus post-scream was that the horsy yelp matched the buoyant energy of the crowd but played much more severe on camera. It popularly became known as the “I Have a Scream” speech.
Trusting a politician’s emotions can be tricky. Why? Richard Setton, a clinical psychologist based in Springfield, Va., has an idea.
“When we talk about public figures, whether it’s in politics or show business or anything like that,” he said, “they tend to be people who are constantly — for the most part — disguising their inner who-they-are.
“They’re upbeat when they’ve lost an election, they’re upbeat when the audience doesn’t respond to a certain joke they’ve told,” he said. “They still have to maintain a public display.”
Using this reasoning, then, it’s no wonder that many private citizens take a second look at a politician’s less common display of emotion, especially if those instances occur at a rally, behind a lectern, or on a TV camera, Setton said.
“The best predictor of whether or not this is genuine is whether or not the person has shown these kinds of things in the past,” he says. In other words, was Clinton previously known as “the crier”? Was Dean “the screamer”? Gore, “Mr. Passion”?
So, onlookers would be wise to consider the context in which a politician’s emotional display takes place in order to discern salt-water tears from droplets that came from a spritzer bottle.
As far as knowing whether a politician’s emotions are the real thing, “I think it depends upon the event, it depends upon the individual, it depends upon lots of different things,” Setton says. “It’s probably darn near impossible to tell.”
To be sure, many politicians show public displays of emotion quite well because they do it often. Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), another Democratic presidential candidate, has been called an expert at showing empathy to voters.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), too, has emoted by repeatedly showing his fiery side during last year’s No Child Left Behind hearings.
Other politicians never show emotion, which makes it all the more shocking when they do. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who otherwise maintains a slick image, has gotten verklempt a few times on the House floor while debating the Iraq war. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) blubbered at the confirmation hearing for now-Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
Nevertheless, all this humanizing of politicians leaves strategists in a bind.
It’s not so much that staffers whisper into a presidential candidate’s ear, “Cry!” here, or “Scream!” there, experts say. But they do encourage their bosses to show a more human side on the campaign, hoping that will help them connect with voters on a personal level.
In Clinton’s case, advisers are balancing “how to personalize a person that [is] also running on a candidacy of competency and working hard,” said Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs at The George Washington University.
As for last week’s watery eyes, Clinton is already so well-known that people used the incident to reaffirm their previously held opinions of her — negative or positive, he said.
The same was true of the Gore kiss, Aday said. Some experienced visceral disgust afterwards, but others saw a man communicating love for and fidelity to his wife.
One last item to address: sexism.
It seems, nowadays, that we’ve given male politicians a green light when they want to share a tender moment with an audience, but we slam on the brakes when female politicians attempt the same thing, experts say. It’s something that prevents women in politics from being able to show their full humaneness, they say.
Just ask Pat Schroeder.
The former congresswoman burst into tears in front of cameras more than 20 years ago but to this day acts as the spokeswoman for female politicians who cry.
“It just shows that sexism is alive and well,” Schroeder says of the scrutiny Clinton’s teary speech received. “To me, it’s absolutely much to do about nothing. She gets a little hitch in her voice, and everybody launches.”
She and others point to the few times Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney choked up in public while campaigning, events that didn’t incite near the furor that Clinton’s speech did.
“Mitt Romney is permitted to sound emotional when describing the death of troops, and no one asks, ‘What does this mean?’ ” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership and a University of Pennsylvania professor. “This is the history of how women have been treated when they run for office. Whether one supports Hillary Clinton or not, there is a gender element under some of this.”
Before we lay the matter to rest, let’s hear from one last expert: Cindy Gold, a Northwestern University theater professor who specializes in body language, eye contact and other forms of nonverbal communication. She helps burgeoning performers communicate emotion with authenticity.
Though “some people cry at a Hallmark commercial,” and though displays of emotion can be coached, she says, what she saw from Clinton last week was “so subtle that she’d have to be a master.”
“Meryl Streep would have trouble doing what people are accusing Hillary Clinton of faking,” she says.