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Boys Don't Cry (Except When They Do): Joe Biden, Ed Muskie, and Me

11/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last night's vice presidential debate had serious implications for the nation's young boys. Not because of any education policy prescriptions that will affect them, nor for the discussion of health care for the millions of America's uninsured children -- such details were, predictably, in short supply. No, last night's debate mattered for American sons because it offered a road sign in the long and tortured cultural history of what it means to be a guy in America.

The bellwether came when tough, affable Joe Biden pulled up mid-sentence to let a wave of sadness pass through him. The catch in his voice seemed to indicate that even he -- the grizzled career politician -- was caught off guard by the reservoir of emotion he had suddenly unearthed. Was that a tear in his eye?

When the venerable turn vulnerable, that's news in my book.

Biden's momentary but unmistakable crying cast my mind reeling back to 1972, when I was a third-grader. I was not your average 9-year-old boy. For one thing, I cried at school almost every day. There was always something that made me break down, and of course once a boy showed himself to be a crier, the die was cast. I was picked on as a "cry baby" and a "queer boy." Which, naturally, only made me cry more. School was a vicious cycle and I couldn't break out.

For another thing, I was weirdly, obsessively interested in politics. My formative experience already included countless protest marches and anti-war demonstrations, and at five I joined my weeping parents in watching the non-stop coverage of both RFK's and MLK's assassinations. The Vietnam War had been my nightly dinner companion and my parents' 1968 argument about whether my Dad was a horse's ass for casting a Dick Gregory protest vote against Humphrey was my most vivid example of parental marital discord.

So the big news story of February 26, 1972 was bound to resonate with young me. That day, Edmund Muskie, then-frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, cried like a baby on national television.

He was in New Hampshire contesting the upcoming primary. Wiliam Loeb, the conservative publisher of the Manchester Union-Leader, had been running vicious broadsides against Muskie, concocting lies about his record and smearing his wife (all of which turned out later to have been done at the Nixon White House's behest, with Karl Rove yet to appear on the political radar...ahhh, Republicans, thy name is consistency).

Muskie's advisers told him to march in to Loeb's office like Daniel to the lion's den and make a big show of his righteous anger. It was a bitter Saturday morning and a steady snow storm had blown in to Manchester. As Muskie climbed the steps to the newspaper's offices, he was trailed by a coterie of reporters and TV news cameras anxious to capture the political theater. But something happened on the way to Muskie's heroic turn. Responding to questions there in the snowy bleak, the candidate broke down. Defending his wife, he began shaking and struggling for words. Tears streamed down his face.

For the next week on the news (news cycles being somewhat more leisurely then), closeups of Muskie's teary face ran again and again. Anchors and reporters picked apart the incident and what it meant for a grown man, let alone one seeking the highest office in the land, to cry uncontrollably in public. Muskie's momentum took a hit; his opponent George McGovern capitalized, questioning his "stability." After a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire primary a week later, Muskie's political career dead-ended and waned to nothing.

Sensitive little boy and political junkie that I was, I always wondered why it had to be that way for Muskie. His story felt like my own; his failure made me feel doomed. And though I went on to donate my $32.00 in life savings to the McGovern Campaign later that year (and carry around a worn McGovern Million Member card in my wallet until I had to give it up in a mugging 20 years later), I still harbored a kind of transgressive sympathy for Muskie; he was my secret hero for showing the world his unbridled sensitivity, the Leader of the Brotherhood of Crybaby Queer Boys.

Free to Be You and Me and Alan Alda notwithstanding, the ensuing decade or two did little to make the world much safer for boys' tears. Or did it?

Last night CNN inadvertently allowed us to do some informal research into that question, by running a graph of the Ohio undecided voter focus group reaction along the bottom of the screen, and by sorting it not into party affiliation but by gender.

I sat watching the debate with my wife, our 8-month-old son sleeping upstairs, unaware of the snares and traps that await him on the road to manhood. As Biden began his response to the notion that only women understand what it means to feel profoundly for their children, I sat on the edge of my seat. "I understand what it's like," he kept saying. What it's like to be left behind by a father leaving to find work. What it's like to lose a wife and children. What it's like to wonder if your sons will make it. When his voice suddenly caught, and he stopped talking and began to cry, and then composed himself again, I watched in amazement as not only the female line on the graph, but right behind it the male line too, soared to the top and threatened to break the machines.

It was the kind of unscripted moment most politicians never get to have unless they are about to be thrown into infamy like poor Ed Muskie. And it just may have shown a little progress. Bro-hugs all around. Way to go, Joe.