Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Tears in New Hampshire: Edmund Muskie and Hillary Clinton

Going into the 1972 campaign to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president, the acknowledeged Dem frontrunner was Maine's senator, Edmund Muskie. Muskie had wowed the country four years before as Hubert Humphrey's vice presidential running mate with his soft-spoken eloquence.

But a Muskie nomination wasn't to be. First, came defeat for Muskie in the Iowa caucuses. Anti-Vietnam War senator George McGovern, piggybacking off of his chairmanship of the Democratic party committee that had reformed the presidential nominating process and building from his former chairmanship of the state Democratic apparatus in nearby South Dakota, beat Muskie, setting up a big battle in New Hampshire's primary, several weeks later.

The Nixon White House and many in the Republican Party regarded Muskie as the most formidable Democratic nominee. That's no doubt why a major New Hampshire newspaper, then read by a huge percentage of Granite State residents and ardently conservative both in its news coverage and editorial page content, went after Muskie full throttle.

First, it claimed that Muskie had made an insulting joke about French-Canadian Americans. This, at least in 1972, was a significant constituency in New Hampshire. Muskie was fending off these allegations when different ones appeared. These alleged that Muskie's wife told off-color jokes and was guilty of drunkenness.

The latter allegations were particularly hurtful to Muskie. He and his wife were extraordinarily close, their relationship cemented by their daily prayer, Scripture reading, and devotions.

An angry Muskie decided to challenge the newspaper publisher, William Loeb, with a rally in front of the paper's offices in Manchester. But emotion took hold of the Maine senator. He choked up and some claimed they saw tears fall as Muskie defended the woman he loved and faced the prospect that his once seemingly invincible campaign would fall apart.

When McGovern won the New Hampshire primary that year, many felt that his victory was at least in part attributable to Ed Muskie crying. Presidents, conventional wisdom said, can't cry.

Zoom forward to 2008. The once seemingly invincible campaign of the junior senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, has hit a major wall in Iowa. His name is Barack Obama. Iowa caucus-goers told the Democratic elites, "Not so fast" and gave the junior senator from Illinois an impressive victory.

Going into New Hampshire, Clinton, who has given as good as she's gotten when it comes to political attacks, was the clear target of her opponents' rhetoric. Undoubtedly, both Barack Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards saw New Hampshire as the place where Clinton's candidacy could become permanently derailed.

Then, just days before the primary, a sympathetic voter asked Clinton how she was able to keep going in the face of opposition. Clinton did not cry. But she was obviously choked with emotion. Clinton claimed that she churned on, in effect, because the country needed her. That may be and Clinton may actually believe that it's true.

Be that as it may, the incident may have been nothing more than a campaign footnote had it not been for the reaction of Edwards. Harking back to the conventional wisdom of 1972, he claimed that Clinton's show of emotion demonstrated that she wasn't fit to be president, evidently too soft to handle adversity.

The voters of New Hampshire, particularly many female voters, registered their disagreement with Edwards and gave Clinton an impressive victory there yesterday.

Leaving questions of gender aside for the moment, the experiences of Muskie in 1972 and Clinton in 2008, show us how different the United States is today. Americans not only more readily accept expressions of emotion in their candidates than they once did, they almost crave them.

This, in my estimation, is both good and bad. On the one hand, it can lead to an acceptance of emotions in their candidates as authentic expressions of their humanity. People want authenticity in their political leaders.

On the other hand, our culture has come to accept a kind of attenuated Freudianism, the unhealthy notion that for everybody's mental health, we all should spill each and every emotion we feel. But that's not authenticity. For example, the anger I may briefly feel today is best not expressed when tomorrow, I may feel something entirely different. Authenticity then, demands that I seek to find equilibrium, a fealty to who I am and seek to be over the long haul of life, rather than seeing myself as a teapot that must blow any time life disconcerts me.

Neither Muskie or Clinton should have been penalized for their choked up frustration on the verge of the New Hampshire primary in 1972 and 2008, respectively. Nor should we have thought less of President Bush for choking up in that famous Oval Office encounter with reporters after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

(I myself have been known to choke up on occasion when I preach or, as has happened a few weeks ago, I accepted the recognition of valued colleagues with whom I served on the corporate board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County.)

For several generations of Democratic candidates steeped in the cool passion of their patron saint, John Kennedy, learning to be more open about their emotions will be unnatural. No doubt, John Kerry was hurt in 2004, because he so kept his emotions in Kennedyesque check. You see Kennedy's cool eloquence in Obama, who also uses the Gospel-train rhertoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. And, Senator Clinton, buffeted by the life-as-a-therapy session politics of her husband, has particularly taken refuge in the coolness of a Kennedy-like public persona.

Now though, candidates, who will do anything to connect with voters, may overlearn the lesson of Clinton's New Hampshire win. They may clamor for time with Dr. Phil and Barbara Walters to demonstrate their "authenticity." The temptation may be especially great for Clinton who led her victory speech last night with expressions of how full her heart was and told the crowd that in the crucible of the campaign there she had found her voice.

If candidates manufacture moments when they can leak a few tears or get choked up, the strategy is likely to backfire on them. The desire for authenticity is real this year. But the desire for self-control in those who lead them remains. A momentary, authentic tear or thickness of the throat is okay. But if candidates now try to give us a steady diet of it, they'd be well-advised to leave politics and get their own talk shows.

No comments: