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The crying game

Tears shed by Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito’s wife at his Senate confirmation hearing have once again raised the question, when is it OK to cry in public?
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It was the context of the tears that surprised people -- in the midst of Wednesday's confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee, a setting that could not be more rehearsed. We're not used to spontaneous expressions of emotion on C-SPAN.

It's a throwback, but men tend to get all rubbery when a woman cries. With tears, a woman is transported to the land-beyond-reproach. (The truth is, if Hillary had only cried a little, back during The Troubles, she might not be seen as the ice queen.)

Anyway, Martha-Ann Alito sniffles and steps out of the hearing room after her husband, Samuel Alito, has been interrogated by Democrats, and the next thing you know, the "Today" show is asking: "DEMOCRATS GONE TOO FAR?"

So here's the new Republican script: The Democrats are bullies. We wanted to ask Martha-Ann about that, so we caught her in a hallway of the Dirksen Building, coming out of a door labeled SENATORS & STAFF ONLY after her husband's questioning ended yesterday. She looked ecstatic, maybe because her husband's part in the whole thing was over. A couple of people came up and gave her hugs. We introduced ourselves.

"Next time," she said sweetly, as if there would be a next time, as if the committee's questioning hadn't just ended, as if she couldn't quite bring herself to say, N o .

A tradition of tears
The crying wife is sacrosanct, an argument-ender, and more than a little retrograde, which is why we think of "I Love Lucy," and Lucy dissolving into tears when Ricky wouldn't let her buy a new coat or some such thing.

Between the "bullying" Sen. Edward Kennedy and the "loving spouse of a smeared nominee, most American people would side with a loving spouse," says Ed Whelan, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, whom we found outside the hearing room.

On the other hand, said Ellen Murphy, listening to Air America on her headphones just outside the Hart Building, the reason the Democrats keep pounding at Martha-Ann's husband is " 'cuz the man won't answer."

The power of tears prompted lefty bloggers and Internet commentators to speculate that Martha-Ann might have faked them, that the tears were a "Rovian cue." Translation: She who cries, wins.

What are the rules about crying in public? Someone should figure these out, because we're stumped. Crying is seen as wimpy, unless it's seen as a sign of strength. Former congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), who memorably broke down upon announcing that she would not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 1988, leading to assumptions that she was too emotional, says that after the incident, she kept a file of all politicians who cried publicly.

"I never knew why it was a big deal that I cried, but not when Margaret Thatcher cried," she says.

Rules of the game
Ronald Reagan used to tear up all the time, she points out, and that seemed to be okay. But 1972 presidential candidate Ed Muskie's misty-eyed appearance outside the Manchester Union Leader came to symbolize the decline -- and eventual demise -- of his once-front-running campaign. (Muskie, who died in 1996, later claimed that snow had blown in his eyes.)

Schroeder, who has since discontinued her "crying file," says that it has become "almost mandatory" for male candidates to cry occasionally, as a way to "humanize" themselves. "But if a woman cries, it's 'Oh my god, do we really want her finger on the button?' "

In any case, the wife gets a pass. She's not running for anything, or trying to get confirmed. The contrast between Alito's careful stoniness and his wife's outburst could not be any more dramatic. She's any one of us, stressed out, maybe suffering from a migraine, as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) suggested, or needing a chance (as Schroeder suggests) to stretch her legs.

Those who watched Wednesday's session point out that the immediate trigger for Martha-Ann's tears was not Democrats questioning Alito, but Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) coming to his defense.

"Are you really a closet bigot?" Graham asked.

"I'm not any kind of bigot," Alito said. "I'm not."

"Of course you're not," Graham said.

This is a crucial point, says Savannah Guthrie, a Court TV correspondent who's been covering the hearings, because it goes to the origin of tears. It's not perceived cruelty that got to Alito's wife. It's the opposite.

"She's crying because Lindsey Graham showed her some kindness," Guthrie said.

Staff writers Mark Leibovich and Lonnae O'Neal Parker contributed to this report.