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Posted at 1:49 PM ET, 12/16/2010

Are John Boehner's tears fair game for Post satire?

By Andy Alexander

John Boehner’s well-known tendency to weep makes him an easy target for satire or ridicule. He broke down twice in interviews last Sunday on "60 Minutes," crying when talking about preserving the American dream for children and again when discussing his marriage with his wife at his side. Amid the extensive dissection that followed on talk shows and the Internet, there were quite a few jokes at his expense (“Weeper of the House,” etc.).

The Post decided early this week to get in on the fun. From a “Why Boehner was crying” link on the washingtonpost.com homepage, readers were invited to submit photo "mashups," superimposing an image of a wet-eyed Boehner onto the image of something that might have prompted those tears. The Post selected more than a dozen mashups for an online gallery. In one, he's depicted watching the tear-jerker Disney classic “Old Yeller.” Another shows him crying at the image of Bristol Palin on “Dancing with the Stars.” Another has the perennially tanned politician weeping at the image of a tanning bed with an “out of order” sign. Yet another shows a glass of spilled milk.

They’re funny. But is crying fair game?

“Politicians can be made fun of, period,” said Tom Lutz, author of the 1999 book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. “Laughing, like crying, is a form of communication,” Lutz said. “And so, all is fair.”

Several readers disagreed. Two called to say it proved The Post has an anti-Republican bias. Another accused The Post of trying to generate Web site traffic by exploiting what she saw as Boehner’s “emotional problem.” A few Post newsroom staffers contacted me to express concern or ask my thoughts.

I agree with Lutz that Boehner, like all politicians, is fair game. I also think it’s important for The Post to experiment with these forms of audience engagement. There’s nothing wrong with being creative and inviting readers to share in some satire.

But although the Boehner mashups made me laugh, they seemed slightly juvenile and not quite in sync with The Post brand. By being featured on the homepage -- even though in the “Discussions” section, reserved for sharing viewpoints -- they seemed to carry the message that The Post, institutionally, had decided to make fun of Boehner's crying.

Hal Straus, one of The Post’s top online editors, whose group conceived the idea, disagreed. “I think it was a pretty good feature, and certainly one that was considered carefully,” he said. Straus noted that a look at Google search trends the day after the “60 Minutes” program showed robust discussion about Boehner’s crying. With that in mind, he said, The Post was eager to find a way to enter the “digital discussion.”

"A politician’s behavior is a fair topic for conversation,” he said. “We’re giving readers as many opportunities as we can to react in smart, creative ways.”

“We are very conscious of the need to deal with politicians and Washington subjects,” he added, “but not to do it in a partisan fashion.”

To avoid inevitable claims that The Post was picking on Boehner for partisan reasons, the feature might have included politicians from both parties who have had notable crying experiences. Even then, however, there’s the implication that there’s something wrong with crying.

As Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote on Wednesday: “These days, male politicians enjoy the freedom to weep – a bit, anyway. The time when Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign could be torpedoed by a few tears – or, perhaps, melting snowflakes – is long past. Tears are humanizing. I defy you to watch Boehner struggling to hold in his sobs and not like him better for it.”

But for the most part, Marcus said, female politicians “still have to hold it in.” They “understand that it’s treacherous to show any weakness or vulnerability.”

Writing about Boehner in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, Lutz said in an op-ed: “One of our fondest cultural myths... 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.”

“Boehner's tears aren't hard to read,” he continued. “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.”

In an e-mail to me, Lutz said that Boehner weeps when he talks about children “because he knows that his policies work against today’s children being able to chase the American Dream as successfully as he did. When he worked his way through college for 7 years, the minimum wage was worth, in 2006 dollars, over $10 an hour. He voted against raising it from $5.15 an hour in 2006. He reached his American Dream because of the New Deal, New Frontier, Great Society America of his youth, and he is bent now on destroying that America and replacing it with the America of Warren G. Harding. No wonder he weeps.”

Lutz also noted the evolution of crying by politicians. “In the19th century weeping was considered one of the basic oratorical skills. Lincoln cried on the stump, and so did Douglas,” he wrote.

“When Muskie was chased out of the race in 1972, it was Bob Dole who led the charge (he was chair of the RNC at the time), saying it proved he was unstable, not tough enough to be president, and Dole himself never cried at political events in his first 45 years in politics.

“But after Bill Clinton made tearfulness popular again (it tracked well, especially with women voters), Bob Dole learned to cry at political events himself, and did so repeatedly in his 1996 campaign. I would be interested to hear if Boehner has ever cried on a golf course; I think his tears are more strategic (and this does not mean they are not sincere, or he is just acting; strategic in the sense that he decides it is okay to show them) than people are saying.”

By Andy Alexander  | December 16, 2010; 1:49 PM ET
 
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Comments

To the yuksters mashing John B --

wait until you've paid OWEbama's bills for 10 years.

You'll be CRYING then.

LOL @ the fiscal idiocy of SWIMMER's crew.

Posted by: russpoter | December 16, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

When he's the leader of a political party that constantly takes actions and words out of context and distorts and deceives. Dean's yell, Dukakis's rape comment, Rev. Wrights sermons? Absolutely fair game.

Why aren't we seeing constant replay of cry-baby Boehner handing out Corporate lobbying checks on the House floor?? Paid to endlessly repeat Gingrich talking points and protect his corporate benefactor's interests.

Go get him, he's an embarrassment to America!

Posted by: thebobbob | December 17, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

It's not the fact that's he crying, it's the reason for it. If a truck ran over his grandmother or he fell face-first into a fireplace, that might be a good reason for crying. But to routinely cry about the fact that he had to work his way through school, or that not everybody agrees with his smug wisdom on public policy issues, betrays a basic lack of maturity and self-control. Soldiers come back from Afghanistan without arms and legs, and they don't cry, at least not in public. But this pampered clown weeps on the floor of Congress? It is calculated and manipulative. The Republicans would be ashamed, if they were capable of it.

Posted by: none12 | December 17, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

As someone who rarely agrees with the Post's liberal leanings -- yes, I do think the media has a liberal bias -- I don't think there was anything wrong with what was done here.

The news doesn't have to always be played straight-laced and not every feature needs to be "balanced," even if it will invite charges of, um, "liberal bias." There are times when you can just go have a good time at a political opponent's expense.

Sincere or strategic, Boehner's waterworks are a good reason for reflection. Tears in anyone can be a sign of human feeling...or they can indicate someone who's not fit for a particular job. We all know of people who are emotional train wrecks on the verge of a nervous collapse.

Republican or Democrat, male or female, bawling at the mere mention of someone struggling to get ahead has me concerned he tends towards that condition. It's simply not something that should produce tears.

But it is worthy of having a good time with and I found some of the readers' submissions to be quite inspired.

Cheers,
Rich

Posted by: foolishcop | December 18, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

"I agree with Lutz that Boehner, like all politicians, is fair game."

Darn right, just like WAPO satirizes Republicans like Palin, Bush, Cheney, Newt, McCain, Romney, and Huckabee, and Democrats like - ummm, err... you know.

Well, okay - remember how we blew the whistle on Edwards? Right? Anyone? Bueller?

Posted by: drunyan8315 | December 18, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

The Post help foister this President on us!

The Nov. 2nd election results were not only a "shellacking" for him and the Democrats, but, also for Slobbering Liberal Media outlets like the Post.

The majority of American voters rejected all of the above! At least Speaker John Boehner has feelings.

The JOKE is on you and we can't wait to remove all in 2012!

HeHeHe

Posted by: ProudConservative1 | December 18, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

So the Public Editor gets complaints that the Post's partisan attacks on Boehner are rooted in partisanship?

His response? Turning the column over to some other partisan hack who goes on to attack Beohner and pine for liberal policies.

What a joke. Do all of the Post staff live in the same tiny little bubble? Their lack of self awareness is pathetic.

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Posted by: MRjavinbur | December 22, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

One of the chat shows put together clips from different Boehner crying jags. he seems to do it at the drop of hat and in seemingly contradictory situations--not unlike Glenn beck. One has to wonder if this isn't just a manipulative behavior. Now that is certainly fair game, although the Post seems to have neglected to what some intern at a chat show obviously saw.

OTOH, I'd rather see Boehner's relationships with lobbyists debated than this.

Posted by: thebuckguy | December 23, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

One of the chat shows put together clips from different Boehner crying jags. he seems to do it at the drop of hat and in seemingly contradictory situations--not unlike Glenn beck. One has to wonder if this isn't just a manipulative behavior. Now that is certainly fair game, although the Post seems to have neglected to what some intern at a chat show obviously saw.

OTOH, I'd rather see Boehner's relationships with lobbyists debated than this.

Posted by: thebuckguy | December 23, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

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