When Edmund Muskie appeared to shed tears in an impassioned defense of his wife — he later insisted they were snowflakes melting on his face — in February of 1972, his presidential campaign evaporated into the New Hampshire air.
When Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the same state 36 years later, choked up in a coffee shop while talking about why she was continuing her campaign after a devastating third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, it was regarded as a humanizing moment and helped catapult her into a come-from- behind win in the New Hampshire primary.
For politicians, turning on the faucets, or seeming to, can endear them to voters or make them come across as not having sufficient toughness to lead. Who wants to vote for a politician who cries? Depends on whom you ask, and whether the weeping seems authentic.
“I think voters are fine with it,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian and professor at Princeton University. “I think in many ways they like to see it, as long as it’s not manufactured.”
That idea was put to the test in the Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign when Republican Charlie Baker broke down near the end of Tuesday night’s debate, covering his face with his hand as he haltingly recounted the story of a fisherman in New Bedford despairing that he had led his sons into a dead-end industry, but one still iconic here.
Aides to both Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley essentially shrugged when asked about the political impact immediately after the debate. It could have made Baker, derided by Coakley as a technocrat who fails to see beyond the bottom line, seem human. Or it could have made him seem too human.
Reporters peppered the moderators after the debate about whether it had been genuine, if Baker had truly wept, or if it was an effort to convince voters that he is not coldhearted.
Baker had warned that he might have a hard time getting through the story, and it came in answer to a question about the last time he had cried. It was when he told the story last Saturday, he said.
On Wednesday, Baker’s emotional moment continued to reverberate. He told reporters he could not remember the fisherman’s name, and his campaign revealed that the encounter Baker had described in such detail had actually occurred in 2009.
Coakley chokes up occasionally on the trail when talking about her brother’s suicide, a story that has become a staple of her public remarks during this election. She had faced criticism in 2010 for having a hard time connecting with voters.
Among political analysts, there is broad agreement that, where once tears could have begat political disaster, followed by more tears, the emotional moments now can help voters relate to candidates they see as less distant.
“It just depends on the instance and how people react to it,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s insurgent 2004 presidential campaign. “If they feel it gives them a deeper connection to a candidate, it’s a huge plus.”
“I think things have changed dramatically,” said Severin Beliveau, a prominent attorney in Augusta, Maine, and longtime Democratic power broker. “I think we have matured as a society over the past 30 years over these issues.”
Beliveau was standing behind Muskie — a US senator who had been governor of Maine and would go on to serve as secretary of state — outside the Manchester Union Leader building in the snow back in 1972. The newspaper had published a missive purportedly about Muskie, and later revealed to be a forgery, slurring Americans of French-Canadian extraction, called the infamous “Canuck letter,” and it had also published disparaging stories about Muskie’s wife.
Muskie, in an overcoat, slammed the newspaper’s publisher, William Loeb, as “a gutless coward” and said, “It’s fortunate for him he’s not on this platform beside me.”
After finishing first in Iowa, Muskie would ultimately win the New Hampshire primary as well, but he watched his candidacy sink amid concerns about his ability to control his emotions. It is remembered as one of the most effective “dirty tricks” that Richard Nixon’s political operation ever played.
“Muskie was penalized,” Beliveau said. “It was reported extensively in the press; they viewed it as a moment of weakness. And I don’t think it’s that way at all today.”
Some analysts saw gender bias when much was made of Patricia Schroeder’s tears at her 1987 announcement that she would not seek the presidency. The Democratic congresswoman from Colorado later mocked the notion that the incident had been a setback for women in politics.
Asked Wednesday whether the reaction to his own display would have been different had it been Coakley who came to near tears, Baker replied, “I hope not.”
Emoting for politicians can backfire if the scene fuels a preexisting narrative about the candidate’s personality, as happened to Dean in 2004. The Democratic former governor of Vermont let out a howl at the end of a fiery speech after he had placed a distant third in the Iowa caucuses — immortalized as “the Dean Scream” — that fed the notion that Dean might be too temperamental to lead the country.
“Anger is not usually a good one,” Trippi said dryly.
But the opposite can also happen. In 1988, then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis delivered a dispassionate, policy-laced response to a debate question about whether he would favor an irrevocable death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered.
Dukakis was hammered for not exhibiting a flicker of emotion in response to such a ghastly scenario, and it underscored perceptions that the Brookline Democrat was too detached.
“He gave a very cold response,” Zelizer said. “And people reacted negatively.”
Baker’s response Tuesday was anything but cold. He said Wednesday that he did not consider himself a regular crier, but the usually light-hearted St. Patrick’s Day breakfast provided a venue last March for another high-profile bout, when he discussed a fallen soldier’s funeral.
Baker would not be the first politician to a make a habit of it. House Speaker John Boehner’s frequent eye-waterings have become something of an Internet sensation, whether he is talking about kids or singing “America the Beautiful.”
President Obama’s tears streaked his face in his final speech of the 2012 campaign, and then a few days later when addressing young campaign workers in Chicago.
Whether Baker’s behavior will work to his benefit or detriment, or whether voters care at all, or whether Tuesday’s episode came too late to refashion the election significantly, is unclear.
On Wednesday, Baker said he harbored some compunction about opening up on what had been a “revealing moment.”
He said, “On some level, I’m not sure I should have even told the story, to tell you the truth.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a newspaper story in the Manchester Union Leader. It was written about Muskie.