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Tears in politics

REP. PATRICIA SCHROEDER is attracting quite a bit of discussion for her ``emotional'' performance this week when she announced she would not be a presidential candidate. For ``emotional,'' read ``tearful.''

As she made public her decision at a press conference, her voice wavered, her face cracked, and she broke into tears.

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For a presidential contender, or near-contender, it was about as emotional an outburst as Ed Muskie's during the 1972 campaign in New Hampshire. Rebutting an attack on his wife, Senator Muskie was photographed racked and wet-faced in falling snow. Whether the moisture was really tears or simply glistening snowflakes has been debated. But the perception was of ``weakness''; his campaign languished and failed.

Why were Mrs. Schroeder's tears so apparently embarrassing to so many TV viewers?

Was it because they connoted weakness? Are presidents and would-be presidents not supposed to cry? That cannot be. President Reagan on a number of moving public occasions has been hard pressed to hold back the tears, and few seem to have faulted him. I have seen very strong men (and women) in government weep over examples of extreme heroism, or in times of great anguish, such as the loss of United States marines in Lebanon, without for a moment lessening their image of inherent strength.

Why, then, the debate over Schroeder?

Is it chauvinist-driven? Is it acceptable for men in public office to be tearful, but not for women? Lt. Col. Oliver North can bite his lip for the television cameras and hold back tears and be acclaimed a hero. Schroeder sheds a tear and is dubbed a wimp.

Yet it cannot all be ascribed to chauvinism; some of Schroeder's toughest critics are women. They bridle over her letting down the women's side - of reinforcing basic stereotypes about women being emotional and unable to make tough decisions.

Says one: ``If a woman is ever going to be elected president of this country - and one will - she's going to have to project more strength than a man. That may be unfair, but that's the way it is. The men of this country are not going to vote for a woman who looks like she might break down and sob when she can't get an arms control agreement with Gorbachev.''

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Two other male would-be presidents backed out of the campaign without being publicly tearful.

Sen. Joseph Biden may have shed no tears, but he was certainly emotional, and angry. Did the viewers conclude that his lack of composure - aside from his other errors of judgment and truthfulness - made him ineligible anyway?

Sen. Gary Hart remained tight-jawed and dry-eyed. But at least in his ABC ``Nightline'' interview, he seemed to dissemble and prevaricate. Was not this lack of forthrightness a more damning negative than Schroeder's momentary lapse into tearfulness?

``Some people,'' says one woman in government, ``are simply more emotional than others. It has nothing to do with strength or weakness.''

Perhaps the fairest comparison is between Schroeder and other women leaders. Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is more likely to reduce reporters to tears than break into tears herself.

On the US scene, it is difficult to imagine Republican Jeane Kirkpatrick in public tears. And surely most Americans would give Democrat Geraldine Ferraro high marks for her gutsy and dry-eyed aplomb when her family and record were under attack. Unfair or not, in a political age where image is key, the path to the White House for a woman is probably still best unsodden by tears.

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