Confronting Gender Bias, Finding a Voice: Hillary Clinton and the New Hampshire Crying Incident

Article excerpt

On January 7, 2008, during an appearance in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire coffee shop, Senator Hillary Clinton did the seemingly unthinkable. Seated with a group of sixteen undecided voters, Clinton took a question from a freelance photographer who asked how she handled the pressures of a contentious campaign. At first, Clinton responded by joking about her physical appearance, but she quickly shifted to a discussion alluding to her recent trouble in the election. "It's not easy," she admitted. Declaring that she was passionate about running and that she cared deeply about the future of the country, Clinton paused briefly and appeared to choke up. "The entire incident lasted just two minutes," Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson (2009) later wrote, "but it dominated the news of the last full day of the primary campaign" (p. 138).

Senator Clinton's tears were controversial because they brought to mind another emotional moment during a Democratic primary in the same state decades earlier. On a wintery day in February 1972 -fresh from a victory in the Iowa caucuses -Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie mounted a platform truck and spoke in front of the headquarters of New Hampshire's major newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Just days before the state's primary, Muskie, who was at the time the front-runner in the campaign, was protesting the publication of a series of stories that bashed his wife and claimed that he used derogatory references for French Canadians while stumping in Florida (Well, 1973, p. 59). In a surprising moment, the senator choked up, had difficulty maintaining his composure, and wiped his face. Journalists described Muskie as weeping and sobbing throughout his remarks and, despite his claim that he was merely wiping melting snow from his cheeks, his appearance was forever known as "the crying incident" ("Campaign teardrops," 1972; Lutz, 1999; Renshon, 1996; Weil, 1973). Instantly, many wondered whether Muskie was emotionally stable enough to hold the highest office in the country (Lutz, 1999), and some say his support eventually evaporated as a result (Jamieson & Waldman, 2003, p. 36; Renshon, p. 151; Weil, 1973, pp. 59-60). Explaining why he lost the nomination to George McGovern, Muskie claimed that the incident "changed people's minds about me, of what kind of a guy I was. They were looking for a strong steady [candidate], and here I was weak" (Renshon, 1996, p. 151).

It was no surprise, then, that the media predicted Senator Clinton's demise in the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic primary after she teared-up momentarily in Portsmouth. At the time, Clinton's campaign faced an uphill battle. Every major poll conducted between the Iowa caucuses-which Clinton lost-and the New Hampshire primary put Senator Barack Obama in the lead by no less than five percentage points (Liss, 2008). Thus, when Clinton choked up she was perceived by many as doomed to the same fate as Ed Muskie. For example, Hendrik Hertzberg (2008) wrote, "Among grizzled veterans the memory of 1972 was still vivid: if Senator Edmund Muskie, of neighboring Maine, had crumpled his ticket to the nomination by appearing ... with wet cheeks, how could Hillary survive?" Karen Breslau (2008) predicted that a day after a loss in the primary "pictures of a red-eyed Clinton will go up under the inevitable headline 'Trail of Tears.'" Although some acknowledged that times had changed and America was more receptive to displays of emotion, others cautioned that Bill Clinton could cry, but Hillary certainly could not (Noveck, 2007). A female presidential candidate, Tom Lutz (1999) argued, could lose everything for crying in front of a camera.

New Hampshire's election results, however, proved shocking. As the conservative commentator William Kristol summarized, "The pundits got it wrong, the pollsters got it wrong, [and] the voters crossed everyone out" (Liss, 2008). In defying all odds (Lithwick, 2008), Clinton received forty percent of the vote to Obama's thirty-seven percent. …

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