Don't cry for me, John Boehner -- really

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President Barack Obama and incoming House Speaker John Boehner probably don't consider themselves opposite manifestations of the same political moment, but they are.

While Mr. Obama never fails to annoy Democrats with the emotional reserve that accompanies his ideological elasticity, the highest-ranking Republican and third in line to the presidency sobs uncontrollably whenever the American Dream is mentioned, even in passing.

The consistency of Mr. Boehner's waterworks borders on the Pavlovian. His incessant blubbering, unembarrassed and guileless though no less sinister, was on full display Sunday on "60 Minutes."

Judging by her expressions of incredulity, correspondent Lesley Stahl didn't know whether to laugh or cry herself whenever some passing banality prompted yet another crying jag by the Ohio congressman.

If you can imagine outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the loathsome Newt Gingrich crying on national television on the eve of their ascensions to power, then you're more imaginative than most.

Those of us of a certain age remember how the late Sen. Ed Muskie's presidential bid self-destructed the day he defended his wife's honor outside a New Hampshire newspaper office during a snowstorm.

The press reported that the Maine Democrat had "cried" tears of frustration. Mr. Muskie, the party's frontrunner at that point in the 1972 campaign, insisted that what they saw were melting snowflakes on his cheek, not full-throated boo-hooing of the Boehner variety.

Because it was an era when John Wayne was still making popular movies, the mere perception that a politician lost his composure in front of the media was enough to kill a presidential bid.

Voters preferred to give Richard Nixon a second term rather than put a "crybaby" like Sen. Muskie within bawling distance of the nuclear codes.

These days, it is no longer fatal to a campaign if a politician momentarily loses his or her composure. Ask Hillary Clinton if the catch in her voice and the tears in her eyes on the eve of the New Hampshire primary helped or hurt her.

Still, politicians are expected to err on the side of stoicism whenever possible, although the rule is inconsistently applied at best.

Arguably the most cerebral president to occupy the White House since Thomas Jefferson, Mr. Obama is considered by many Democrats a little too emotionally centered and devoid of passion.

Most have conveniently forgotten the catch in Mr. Obama's voice and the tears he fought back as he spoke of the death of his grandmother on the eve of his election as president. He's not a robot.

Still, Mr. Obama's joint news conference with former President Bill Clinton last week was an interesting study in contrasts.

If, as columnist Maureen Dowd often complains, Mr. Obama is Mr. Spock of "Star Trek," then Mr. Clinton is the garrulous Captain James T. Kirk. (Note how Mr. Clinton continued taking questions long after the current president left the stage.)

Although Spock is stronger and smarter than Kirk on every level, he lacks Kirk's talent for improvisation and audacity, both necessary qualities for leadership in a ruthless cosmos. There's a reason that Spock never became captain of the Enterprise in the series.

To complete the "Star Trek" analogy, the president and the incoming House speaker are probably going to get along about as well as Spock and Dr. Leonard McCoy did on the series.

"Bones" McCoy vented all of his human passions, including prejudice, by constantly referring to Spock as a "green-blooded Vulcan," which was true enough but was meant as a put-down.

With Mr. Boehner trying to redefine Republican manhood to include crying jags, public sobbing and getting in touch with one's sappy, sentimental side, it will be interesting to see if he gets any push back from the more macho-oriented GOP rank-and-file.

The terrible irony is that in being as emotionally demonstrative as he is, Mr. Boehner may find himself accidentally in tune with the public mood. Of course, when he and his cohorts are done with us, it will be our turn to cry.


Correction/Clarification: (Published December 15, 2010) Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie allegedly shed tears outside a New Hampshire newspaper during the 1972 race. Tony Norman's column on Tuesday listed an incorrect state of where the incident occurred.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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