Nav Bar
Nav Bar

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 know.


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 to show.

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 him.

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 race......


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 way?


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 dehumanizing process.

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.

stories of bill | stories of bob | interact | photo gallery | four colloquies | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation