President Barack Obama cried in public. The president of the United States of America, the man who has his finger on nuclear weapons, had “tears streaming down his face” before television cameras when he announced new executive actions to reduce gun sales in the U.S. As reported by the International New York Times: “Mr. Obama broke down as he spoke about the young children shot to death in 2012 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.”
As could be expected, reactions to his emotional moment, as with all Obama’s activities, were divided and also emotional. The liberal journalist Nicholas Kristof praised the president, going further by suggesting that Americans would do better to cry over the more than 225,000 people who have died from gun violence in the seven years of Obama’s presidency than criticize his emotions. On the other hand, many considered the public display of tears to be a sign of weakness, while others proposed that the president would do better to weep over the Syrians dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean or the civilians killed through collateral damage from drone attacks.
There are not many historical examples of presidents crying in office. The most recent emotional outburst was by someone close to the Oval Office. Senator Edmund Muskie was a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972. The immediate cause of the controversy was a letter – later proved to be forged by Richard Nixon’s staff – in which Muskie was accused of being prejudiced against Americans of French-Canadian descent. Muskie delivered a speech in front of the New Hampshire newspaper office that had published the accusing letter. Newspapers reported that he, like Obama, had “broken down” when delivering the speech. Muskie claimed that the perceived tears were snow melting on his face. Whatever the truth, Muskie’s campaign took a serious hit and he did not receive the Democratic nomination.
There are two parts to this Obama controversy. The first is whether men should cry in public or show their emotions. The image of the virile man, as opposed to the emotional female, has along historical background and will certainly be used against Hillary Clinton during the upcoming presidential campaign. Angela Merkel has been able to avoid that problem as did prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir. In fact, both female leaders were accused of being overly tough in order to overcome a feminine label of not being tough enough. The rifle-toting Sarah Palin easily fit into this category. If Clinton does become the first female president of the United States, watch certain journalists – certainly with Fox News – to keep a close tabs on this.
The second aspect involves public figures. We expect public figures to be above emotions. Instant reactions to crises can be dangerous, remembering the initial reaction of those in the inner circle around President John F. Kennedy who wanted to bomb Cuba when Soviet missiles were discovered there in 1962. Empathy and compassion are not qualities admired in commanders-in-chief; the fact that George W. Bush would not pay his respects to the dead soldiers in coffins from Iraq and Afghanistan did not tarnish his image.
The controversy over Obama’s tears – did he really rub onion in his eyes like in the movies to make himself cry? – indicates a shifting perception of leadership in the United States. The image of the virile frat boy, football star cowboy as president has taken a serious hit with Obama’s election. His “weakness” in not sending troops to Syria is another sign that he is different from the gun-toting Texans or Palin’s Alaskans ready to shoot bears or Russians, whichever comes first into their territory.
Some call this the feminization of the United States and use it in a cause and effect argument about why the U.S. is no longer the undisputed world leader. The popularity of Donald Trump with his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” is part of a reaction to changing images. Obama plays basketball and golf, John Kennedy played football. More and more Americans are watching soccer, the non-violent global sport.
One small tear fell in a speech trying to reduce deaths from guns in the United States. Many will consider this a typical American problem and remain perplexed at why the U.S. cannot reduce the number of guns in the country. But are these the same people who are not shocked at the firing of a pistol by a celebrity Geneva lawyer in a fashionable hotel? The problem of guns is not just a United States problem. Gun sales and arms transfers are a global problem, and tears or no tears, President Obama is at least trying to do something to solve the problem in the United States in the face of determined opposition.