We’ve seen Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) cry twice recently in public. On election night, addressing supporters, he was overcome with emotion while describing his up-by-the-bootstraps pursuit of the American dream. Then on Sunday, during a “60 Minutes” interview with Lesley Stahl, Boehner’s tears began to flow as he worried aloud about today’s schoolchildren.
So what can the tears tell us about our new House speaker?
One of our fondest cultural myths — one of baffling durability, like the idea that Republicans are fiscally conservative — is that crying is a sign of sincerity or authentic feeling. No matter what we may know of crocodile tears, we continue to read weeping as a sign of true, pure emotion. All the research suggests something else entirely.
Crying is often the sign of excruciatingly mixed emotion. Take the mother who cries at her daughter’s wedding: She may be happy about the marriage and flooded with positive emotions — feelings of role fulfillment, of accomplishment, of pride, of happiness for her daughter. At the same time, she feels a sense of loss: A part of her life is over; she is losing not only a daughter but a purpose, a role.
Even our moments of extreme grief are complicated. The stages of grief do not follow each other in a neat therapeutic procession; instead, they are often a jumble. Loss is complicated by rage, by denial, by guilt. We weep and we wail, and we do so not because we know, without a doubt, exactly what we are feeling. We cry, in fact, because we don’t.
Boehner’s tears aren’t hard to read. After analyzing hundreds of psychological experiments and sociological studies of weeping, hundreds of accounts of crying in different cultures and different historical periods, thousands of tearful moments in film and fiction and art, I have come to see that, like the mother of the bride, many of us weep because we are overwhelmed by contradictions.
Oliver North cried at the Iran-Contra hearings whenever he talked about how much he loved his country. His patriotism was real, but it was complicated by the fact that he was lying to Congress. His part in an illegal operation meant that he was subverting the very Constitution he spent his life defending. These moments when real honesty is coupled with bad faith, especially when it is personal — when the speaker who is at once telling the truth and a lie is, like North, talking about himself — these are the moments that call forth tears.
On “60 Minutes,” Boehner told Stahl that he couldn’t visit schools anymore; that he got too upset, worrying about whether today’s schoolchildren will have the same opportunities that he and his generation had. As he spoke, he started to weep. Why?
He does, I believe, worry about the children, and yet his entire political philosophy is devoted to limiting the federal government’s ability to help them. He has voted against providing health insurance for children (many times), against student aid, against unemployment benefits, against equal pay, against food safety, against money for teachers, against raising the minimum wage, against tobacco education, mine safety, alternative energy, pollution control, whistle-blower protection, science and technology research. If he were making his decisions based on what government programs might help today’s schoolchildren reach their dreams, like the Kennedy- and Johnson-era programs that helped him, his voting record would be very different. It is a deep enough contradiction to make him weep for the future.
“Making sure that these kids have a shot at the American dream, like I did, is important,” he told Stahl through his tears. Yet he and his Republican colleagues are working hard to make sure that they can’t; that the middle class he once aspired to becomes smaller rather than bigger. His college received federal grants and federal student aid while he was there, and it continues to do so, including from the stimulus bill he voted against.
The America that gave Boehner a shot at his dream had a minimum wage that, adjusted for inflation, topped $10 an hour. In 2006, he voted against letting the minimum rise from $5.15 to its current $7.25. It took Boehner seven years to finish college while working minimum-wage jobs; how long would it have taken if the minimum wage had purchased as little as it does today?
Boehner put himself through school, he said on election night, unsuccessfully trying to stem the flow of tears, “working every rotten job there was.” He mopped floors, waited tables and tended bar. One could feel both his horror at once having done that sort of work and his exuberance at having left it behind to become the golfing, jet-setting, deeply tanned man weeping before the cameras.
Would he agree with this assessment? Does he know that, despite his assertions to the contrary, cutting taxes for the rich won’t do anything to produce those jobs he keeps promising? Does he feel conflicted knowing that his golf bill (reported at $83,000 last year) is six or seven times the take-home pay of someone working 40 hours a week at minimum wage, and several times the median income in many of our communities?
I suspect he does, and that when he thinks about the America of his youth, he knows it will never return if his party gets its way in Washington. It is all too much. He weeps.
Tom Lutz is a professor at UC Riverside, editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and the author of “Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears.”