Nicholas Jenkins, Professor of English, Harvard University. His article in The New Yorker on styles of crying in public, contrasted the generational ways of weeping including analysing the presidential candidates.
Interviewed June 12, 1996
Interpreting what it means when Clinton or Dole cries.
Well it's become harder and harder to separate the reality of crying and the
performance of crying in a campaign, because the crying, as a genuine emotional
expression and the crying as part of, the new political theatre, have become
harder and harder to distinguish. So clearly, both these men when they cry
reach back into a kind of a well of sadness that probably everyone carries
within them but surely also politicians carry within them when they reflect on
what they've had to do to reach where they are, the kinds of things that most
people are never put in the position of having to decide about, but they've had
to make choices over.
So they reach into themselves and they're crying genuinely, but at the same
time, they're also crying as part of the modern, rhetoric of campaigning, and,
neither of these two men who've staked their whole lives and their whole
futures on, campaigning for the presidency are going to do something that will
be lethal to their campaigns. So when they do it, they do it within a
controlled context and they're crying genuinely but they're also crying in an
instrumental way for effect, with the audience and the electorate.
FL: However controlled it is, however staged, nonetheless, their crying does
offer us insight, small revelations into who they are, doesn't it?
FL: As we look at their tears, what do we know that we didn't know before when
we watch them cry? That they wanted us to know or didn't want us to
Although these moments of crying happen on a stage, and are partly theatrical,
I think they're also self-revelatory about the two candidates. They don't just
cry about anything, they cry in specific contexts and with a specific stimulus,
and I think when they do cry, they probably show the electorate something about
themselves, that they may not otherwise have been able to show or even wanted
When Clinton cries as a way of engaging with his audience, and I think also
probably, because he suspects his own facility too, and hopes to make a bond
with an audience that he may even be suspicious about himself when he's
talking. He may be crying, partly because he sees his tears as a way of
overcoming what you might call a verbal manipulativeness in himself. And I
suspect the part of his, tear-mongering, is to do with, overcoming his own
doubts about his facility with language, as well as overcoming our own, our own
doubts. I think Dole is also crying to reach out to his audience. In both
cases, the crying is a kind of flattery for the audience. But I think it also
shows you something about Dole that he's kept very tightly hidden otherwise.
It shows you something about the depth of adversity that he's to overcome, that
he walks around with all the time, in his life, and that he might otherwise
have successfully camouflaged.
I think when Dole cries we see him struggling for a kind of eloquence that
he's otherwise been unable to reach, and to master. We see him struggling on a
stage that he's not used to as a Senator, for some kind of, symbolic
completeness as a person that was really irrelevant to him when he was more of
a pragmatic politician in Washington. But when he reaches the presidential
stage, he's asked to become eloquent, feeling connected to the ordinary man in
a way that he was really insulated from and never had to deal with on the
national stage when he was simply a senator. So he's reaching for his,
eloquence through tears because a kind of performance in words is really beyond
FL: The whole idea of wholeness -- what he's lost because of the war wounds --
any connection to that?
Well, Dole had to turn himself into a functioning politician after rising from
what almost became a deathbed for him. And when he did so, he turned himself
into a kind of very severe, autocratic, impersonal leader. At least in public.
A pragmatic politician rather than an inspiring politician. But when you move
on to the presidential stage, you're asked for a kind of completeness of
emotionalism and strength, wisdom and sincerity that you really don't need to
show when you're in the Senate, and I think he's being asked to show a
wholeness, a personal wholeness that we rightly or wrongly as an audience
demand from the presidential candidates, and crying is his way of indicating
his warmth, his humanity, and it wouldn't be possible for him to have put it
into words, but the tears are a kind of surrogate campaigning for him. Um, a
surrogate for his own, inarticulacy, sorry, but for inarticulacy is exactly the
wrong way around. Surrogate for articulacy I meant.
FL: I asked a Dole observer why is this man doing it at age 74, what is fueling
his engine. Three tries, the humiliations. If you assume one of the things
that is driving is this need to be whole and to be farthest removed -- the
presidential job which is the most powerful job is at the farthest remove --
reflect on his ambition.
I suspect that somebody who's gone through an experience of profound
helplessness, as Dole did when he was wounded and was lying, unable to, rise
from his bed, unable to feed himself, unable to do all the normal things that,
a person has to do in the course of a day, would find the presidency as far as
possible away from that experience of helplessness. I mean in a way it's like
being voted God, but it's the experience of supreme power, really and Dole,
having gone through an experience of utter helplessness, is being driven by
something in himself towards, as far as you can go, towards complete and total
power on earth. Maybe that's a bit unfair.
FL: And what about going through this gauntlet, entering a presidential
The presidential campaign must be one of the most brutal activities that
anybody can undergo. Partly because the demands made are so contradictory. We
want the President to be, or the candidate to be warm and emotional and human,
but also strong, and unflinching and principled. We want him to pay attention
to, the electorate wants him to pay attention to the demands of, their own
constituency and yet not to cater to special interests. A politician running
for president has to expose himself, and I hope not too long into the future,
herself, into to a huge, barrage of conflicting demands, a purgatorial routine
of repetition, a self-humiliation really that most people would probably find
hard to undergo. And you have to make a series of choices too, to which there
are no good solutions. You have to balance a set of conflicting demands which
are inevitably going to result in, eliminating large sectors of the American
public. And you have to become 12 or 13 different people to satisfy the
immense diversity of the country, and the different parts of the country, the
different constituencies of the country, and to be all things to all people.
And at times it must seem like all that's left of you is a little piece of
putty in the center of your soul that's being stretched in 7 different
directions at once. So, the brutalization of the process and the intensity of
the pressure, because after all, we're trying to elect somebody who's sitting
at the very harbor of a huge system and that conflicting strains on that person
are titanic, I presume. It must, it's hard to know what they're actually like.
But the campaign process, and then actually being there and being president
are, I would guess, amongst the hardest and most painful activities that
anybody could undergo. And if you do undergo them, it's probably not that
difficult to draw somewhere on a well of tears, that, you can summon when the
campaign occasion seems right.
FL: What happens to your inner life throughout all this? Isn't it disfiguring,
or are the people drawn to it already disfigured, or are they changed along the
I think crying shows that people hold on to some of their inner life too
because it's hard to, think of people simply crying cynically on the campaign
trail. It's hard to think that they aren't in touch with something, surviving
from their old selves. But, it must be very disfiguring as you start to become
a package and a product and a construction and not a person who can react in
any normal, spontaneous way. When you go on the campaign trail, you repeat the
words of other people time after time after time. You aren't talking your own
thoughts, you're talking a constructed position that will touch on the
interests of any number of different constituencies and draw them towards you.
And I suspect it is, if it's not a disfiguring process, it's a kind of
On the other hand, some people obviously thrive on it too. And probably the
only people who thrive on it can get far enough to be presidential candidates.
Clinton clearly thrives on the sort of libidinous energy he's drawing from his
crowds, and Dole, I suspect is less fond of pressing the flesh. But still the,
the high of attention that you must get may compensate for all the lows of
self-repetition and humiliation and compromise that are an inevitable part of
the campaigning process too.