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Big Boys Do Cry -- and Still Win Elections

Politicians who got emotional or confessed to mental anguish used to become ex-politicians in a hurry. No more. Even Bush gets teary.

November 23, 2003|Ron Fournier | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Three decades after misty eyes helped sink Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign and shock treatment ended Thomas F. Eagleton's vice presidential bid, Democratic hopeful Howard Dean speaks about grief counseling and bouts of anxiety over his brother's disappearance in Southeast Asia.

Wesley Clark chokes up over genocide. John Kerry gets watery-eyed in a New Hampshire diner. John Edwards calls the death of his son "the undercurrent of my life." Even President Bush, the tough-on-terrorism commander-in-chief, has fought back tears in the Oval Office.

In this age of heart-on-your-sleeve politics, signs of emotion are no longer the kiss of political death and may even help breathe life into candidates in need of a human touch.

"It's become another element, another way, of making the public feel they know something they really don't know about a candidate," said Stanley Renshon, political scientist and psychoanalyst at the City University of New York.

Dean has offered scant details about grief counseling he sought in the early 1980s for guilt and anger he suffered after his brother, Charles, disappeared in Laos 30 years ago. The former Vermont governor said last week that he believes remains found at the site belong to his brother.

The candidate, who rarely talks about his personal life, said his brother's capture and death caused him to seek therapy for bouts of anxiety. Dean was quoted as calling the episodes "panic attacks," although his aides said he quickly described that as a poor choice of words.

Renshon said that as common as anxiety attacks are, in a presidential candidate, the episodes raise questions. "Usually, it's about a lack of control and a feeling of anxiety that comes along with that. The question an analyst would always ask is, 'What circumstances trigger that? Is that an ongoing pattern and is it likely to interfere with his judgment?' " he said.

Dean's temperament and political judgment have been an issue, but only because some off-the-cuff remarks have backfired. Nobody has challenged his mental fitness after five terms as governor and more than a year on the presidential campaign trail.

Eagleton's mental history was exponentially more severe, and it forced him off Democrat George S. McGovern's 1972 ticket. The Missouri senator had been hospitalized three times for psychiatric treatment and twice had undergone electroshock therapy for depression.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis once sought psychological help for depression, calling his daughter's and brother's deaths emotionally racking. It became an issue in his 1988 campaign against Vice President George Bush when President Reagan called Dukakis "an invalid."

One in five Americans tell pollsters that they suffered from depression or anxiety disorder, according to figures from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The percentage of people viewing depression as a health problem rose from 1978 to 1996, but a majority still saw it as a sign of personal weakness, according to foundation figures.

"It strikes me that people are more accepting," said Michael Dimock, a pollster with the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "The bulk of the population is now baby boomers and have experienced many of these same feelings."

He said Dean benefits from not being the first politician to talk about depression -- just as marijuana smoking was a major issue for Bill Clinton in 1992, but it was hardly noticed when three candidates this year confessed to smoking dope in the past.

There's nothing new about shedding tears, either. Clinton picked up where Muskie left off. The former Arkansas governor wore emotions on his sleeve and often grew watery-eyed as he connected with troubled voters.

"He's the gold standard of pseudo-intimacy," Renshon said.

Clark, a retired general, grew misty-eyed for CBS's "60 Minutes II" while looking at pictures of children killed in ethnic cleansing. Kerry choked up in September as he talked to an unemployed New Hampshire woman. Edwards breaks a public silence about his son's death in a new book.

Bush's eyes watered during his inauguration -- and while he spoke of the Sept. 11 attacks from the Oval Office.

Stoicism was the standard for generations of American politicians, many of whom kept physical and emotional troubles under wraps, but Watergate and Vietnam left Americans wanting to know more about the inner workings of their leaders. Presidencies are more personal now that voters -- not party systems of old -- choose nominees.

"These two things have put the public in a position where they really want to know" what makes their leaders tick, Renshon said. "The candidate handlers have picked up on this need."

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