Given that I’ve been thinking a lot about presidential rhetoric this week, I couldn’t help but find myself utterly fascinated (and mostly troubled) by the response to Hillary Clinton’s emotional response to a question on the New Hampshire campaign trail. Quite honestly, I don’t care about the “horse race” arguments and whether Clinton’s tears will negatively affect her campaign, other than the degree to which the “horse race” pundits are, in fact, commenting on the “appropriate” emotions that a female presidential candidate can show.
Like echidne, I’m troubled by the argument that Clinton’s emotions will demonstrate to male voters that she is “too hysterical” to be president. So I guess we can now add “Hysterical Hill” to the previous (and now contradictory) characterizations of Clinton as too calculated or too ambitious or too smart. I realize that it’s inevitable that Hillary’s (imagined or real) tears will be read almost entirely in terms of polling and popularity, but I have encountered few readings of today’s events that genuinely address why women (or men, for that matter) shouldn’t show these kinds of emotions on the campaign trail, when other supposedly “negative” emotions (anger, frustration, etc) are still considered appropriate. There’s a fairly interesting discussion of Clinton’s emotions on the ABC News website, although several of the observers seem to play into the idea of Clinton’s emotions as either too feminine or simply “too much.” Diana Owen argues, for example, that:
“Crying in a campaign at this stage is something you can’t do — male or female — and history has shown that….It shows people weakness — crying goes against both male and female stereotypes, neither can do it.”
Similarly, Julian Zelizer adds that “I don’t think she’s gone overboard yet.” Now, I realize the phrasing of the ABC article frames both comments; however, I’m troubled by the degree to which Hillary’s hypothetical tears are seen as so excessive, so far beyond what is appropriate for a campaign. Interestingly, one of the most sympathetic–and reasoned–responses comes from MSNBC’s Chris Cilizza, who argues that “I think she’s both tired and probably emotional because she’s losing, but I do think — I don’t think everything’s mutually exclusive. I think it may help her.”
Josh Marshall has both the original “emotional” moment (I refuse to call it a breakdown, or as some would have it a Muskie moment), and Clinton’s response to the “controversy.” And while I recognize that presidential campaigns are complete taxing physically and emotionally, I think Clinton is right, rhetorically at least, to argue that her original “emotional” answer simply illustrates her passion for public service. It’s also worth noting that Clinton has endured some of the most absurd–and often highly gendered–attacks in recent memory (such as Neal Boortz’s assertion that “The only reason I’m still doing talk radio is just looking forward to riding her – - – [expletive deleted] through a campaign. I mean figuratively, yes, not literally.”
Update: Todd Gitlin is right. If this ABC blog posting accurately represents John Edwards’ response to this story, then he really needs to learn to think before he speaks. Implying that Hillary lacks the necessary “strength and resolve” to become President because her voice cracked? Classy! Obama’s response, thankfully, is much more thoughtful.
Update 2: Katha Pollitt has an even more impassioned take on Edwards’ response and on the political media’s treatment of Hillary. She’s absolutely right to point out Edwards’ hypocrisy in using personal tragedy–including his wife’s cancer–for political gain while attacking Hillary for showing too much “emotion” by getting a little misty.
Update 3: This story has apparently hit a nerve with me. Via Shakespeare’s Sister, I just learned that some asshole at one of Clinton’s campaign rallies chanted and held up a sign imploring Clinton to “Iron My Shirt.” Not that I’m surprised, but sexism is apparently alive and well. Clinton’s response seems about right to me: “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.” Of course, the only thing Chris Matthews will remember is that Hillary cried. Which makes her human or something.