Sept. 20, 2001
Teary leaders no longer
faze the public in era of `confessional culture'
BY HELEN BRANSWELL
WASHINGTON (CP) - Senator Edmund Muskie's presidential aspirations were washed away in 1972 by what in the end may have been an illusion of a few salty tears.
Three decades later, in the wake of the worst terrorist attack on American soil, a shaken but resolute George W. Bush's eyes welled up as the President faced his grieving nation - and his approval rating rose.
Veteran news anchor Dan Rather broke down not once but twice on the David Letterman show.
Less seasoned reporters like CNN's Elizabeth Cohen openly wept as desperate New Yorkers pleaded for help locating loved ones that they insisted - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - would rise like Lazarus from the mountain of rubble that was once the World Trade Centre.
Not so long ago, those tears would have been seen as a lack of professionalism. They might have brought censure.
But there is no censure today.
Has crying in public finally lost its stigma? Is the western world prepared to allow people to weep publicly without shame?
Tears - be they in the eyes of political leaders, media personages or sports icons _ have gained a level of public acceptance since Muskie's failed presidential bid, say a number of people who track trends in popular culture.
Some think crying is not only acceptable, but de rigueur for the modern, empathetic political leader _ a role personified by former president Bill Clinton, who would unabashedly allow a tear or two to track down his cheeks if an occasion moved him.
``I think the world has changed. There's an overall trend in the last 10, 20 years where showing your emotions on television or anywhere else in a public forum is not only encouraged, it's expected. And people comment if you don't show emotions,'' said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York City.
``If you're a public official and can't cry, you are in serious trouble.''
In the uncertain days since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the reverse would certainly seem true.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has been a pillar of strength for his shattered city. But when he briefly succumbed to grief last weekend, residents of his city, a metropolis that prides itself on its toughness, liked him the more for it.
``Where at another time being stoic and strong was the most important thing, now you get credit for being able to show emotion, that you care. How do you show you care? This is one of the ways,'' Sreenivasan said.
Tears, particularly in the eyes of those in control, used to be viewed as a sign of weakness. And weakness of any kind was the kiss of death for those _ like politicians and news anchors _ whose jobs required them to project an air of calm, cool control.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered among the greatest of U.S. presidents, lost the use of his legs to polio. The macho ethos of Second World War America meant FDR had to hide his disability.
But such would not be the case if Roosevelt lived today, says Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communications at American University in Washington.
``He would be on the Oprah Winfrey Show taking about his disability and what it meant and how it affected him,'' believes Steinhorn, who says talk shows such as Winfrey's have created ``a confessional culture'' in North America.
``Television has changed the culture because television in some ways is an intimate medium. We have virtual relationships with the people on television. So we have to have some feeling of their humanity. And without that, we don't feel that we know them.''
The omnipresence of our leaders in our lives, a feature exclusive to the TV age, means we've become acutely familiar with their every expression and reaction _ Bill Clinton's bitten lip, Ronald Reagan's cocked head.
``So these emotional expressions _ they're very intimate expressions _ are really part and parcel of leadership right now. Because that's how television communicates,'' Steinhorn says.
Gone are the days when our images of leaders were gleaned from pictures, taken by a photographer working for the president or the prime minister, showing the leader in a pose of his choosing.
Today, the camera is almost always trained on the newsworthy _ we actually saw Bush as he learned the second World Trade Centre tower had been hit! _ and as a result we observe public figures in all sorts of stances and positions and expressions.
Occasionally, that means we see them in tears.
Those images may not jar us as they might have years ago because society's view of emotions has changed, psychologist John Service says.
The 1960s ushered in an era in which people were encouraged not to be ashamed of their emotions. Men were told it was OK, heck required, for them to be open about their love for their woman and their children.
``I think that there's been a big change over the last 10, 15 years that led particularly men to be able to express their emotions, particularly sadness and crying and the like in public much more freely,'' says Service, executive director of the Canadian Psychology Association in Ottawa.
He points as evidence to Wayne Gretzky, who openly wept when his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings was announced.
``And this is a large sports icon. These guys are supposed to be tough and this should never happen in sports, and it was very positively received. The people in Edmonton really, really appreciated it.
``Politicians, news folks, sports figures _ yeah, you can just see that it's happening more and more frequently,'' Service says.
That's certainly true of journalists and the coverage of the terrorist attacks.
``I've seen more tears in various newsrooms in the last week than I've ever seen before,'' says Sreenivasan.
Steinhorn says the startling nature of the attacks and the sheer magnitude of the devastation made it impossible for many journalists to contain their emotions.
``When you're talking about these things and all of a sudden these images are flashing in your face and these personal stories ... my gosh, any human being is going to weep,'' he says.
``These losses are not abstractions in the visual world. ... We are all experiencing these disasters and horrors much more up close than at any other time in history.''
Thomas Uhde has another take on the issue of public crying.
The dean of neuroscience research at Wayne State University in Detroit, Uhde says it doesn't really matter if we have become more accepting of tears.
Why? Because we're going to be seeing a lot more of them whether we like it or not, he predicts.
Millions of people are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of last week's events, he explains.
While those at ground zero are at highest risk, TV viewers thousands of kilometres away who were mesmerized by hour after hour of horrific images and heartbreaking tales will suddenly find themselves overcome with emotion in the weeks and months to come, Uhde says.
``It's not only happening to the Dan Rathers of the world, but it's happening to millions of people.
``So there's, if you will, theoretically almost simultaneous appreciation and acceptance for it. Because it's occurring at a very, very high prevalence rate in our society at this time.''
Most agree, however, that there are limits to public acceptance of crying, at least as it pertains to those who hold positions of authority. A few tears, a trembling lip, a quiver in the voice, a tear rolling down a cheek. These are acceptable expressions of emotion.
But ragged sobs would undermine the public's confidence that this authority figure was actually in control, they suggest.
``What people want in their leadership is leadership. They want somebody who can make decisions in tough times. They want somebody that they can have confidence in,'' Service acknowledges.
``I think people in leadership positions do have that double standard.''
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