Are the Crying Spells of John Boehner Signs of Depression?

November 7, 2010

When the Republicans took back the House of Representatives this past week, John Boehner, the presumptive new Speaker and current Senator from Ohio, unleashed a “sob heard round the world.” As The New York Times quotes:

“I’ve spent my whole life chasing the American dream,” (Boehner) said, beginning to cry. He swallowed and tried again. But describing all the bad jobs he had once led to near sobbing when he got to the line, “I poured my heart and soul into running a small business.”

Boehner has cried in public many other times, the recent election night being only the largest stage to date. The tears also flow at his annual golf tournament, or while watching a child pledge allegiance to the flag, listening to a Republican colleague speak about his Vietnam War experiences, the unveiling of a statue of Ronald Reagan, while accepting various awards, during a rendition of America the Beautiful… Could these tears be signs of major depression? Should melancholy be a disqualification for leadership? Were Clinton’s tears any better?

Before trying to answer these questions, perhaps a viewing of the behavior is in order. Here he is on election night, and while accepting the Henry Hyde Defender of Life Award*:

*According to Wikipedia, Senator Henry Hyde’s original “Hyde Ammendment” passed in 1976 and barred the use of certain federal funds to pay for abortions. This primarily affected low-income women on Medicaid and made no exceptions for victims of rape, incest, or women whose lives were threatened by continued pregnancy.

In my limited viewing of Boehner’s crying, it seems to be cued by reflections on his childhood, the adversities he overcame, and an acute awareness of his eleven siblings. Sentimentality is human and endearing, but when it leads to tears with such frequency in the third most powerful man in America, we should at least question its origins.

Habitual crying by itself is not diagnostic of depression. It can be the cathartic physical outpouring of emotional distress. Major depression significantly and adversely affects one’s family and personal relationships, work life, sleeping and eating habits, and general health. Judging by the rising star that is Boehner’s political career, it would seem that depression is not holding him back. According to Tom Lutz, a professor and author on the subject, crying in public can be calculated or self-permitted. From The New York Times, he explains:

We do so for a number of reasons,” Mr. Lutz said. “For emphasis (this is so important I give myself permission to break the rules); for self-definition (I don’t care how I’m supposed to act; this is who I really am); to ward off criticism (he’s too upset for me to challenge him); to suggest intimacy (he feels so comfortable with me he will break the rules in front of me); and so on.

Perhaps it is just a savvy political tool, and the wielding of tears should be considered as casual as a wink and smile. Yet something about crying insists we search for signs of sincerity, perhaps because it makes us reflexively want to help.

Depressed persons experience anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure. They often withdraw from social situations. According to the San Francisco Gate, “Boehner is famous for the lavish parties he throws, including an annual “Boehner Beach Party” fundraiser. At the GOP’s 2004 convention in New York, Boehner hosted a party that raged all four nights of the convention at Tunnel, a West Side nightclub, sponsored by Bruce Gates, a Washington lobbyist for Ernst & Young, whose clients include General Electric, Ford, AT&T and Verizon.”

One thing we know about the health behaviors of Mr. Boehner is that he is an avid smoker. Smoking has been associated with a higher risk of developing depression and anxiety, and in one study those reporting at least five symptoms of nicotine dependence had over double the rates of depressive symptoms than those reporting none. Another study found that more than 50% of middle-aged men with depression were also smokers, compared with smoking rates of only 26% in non-depressed men.

Chronic pain has been found as both a result and cause of depression. Is Mr. Boehner in chronic pain? He did sign up for the Navy in his younger days, but was discharged after eight weeks of training for “a bad back.” This was in 1968, a year that saw the Tet offensive in Vietnam begin. It is unclear if back pain is still a major impediment for Mr. Boehner.

In purely speculative terms, does living a financially rewarding life (in contrast to a poor childhood) lead to feelings of guilt? Success can certainly lead to paradoxical feelings of shame, and guilt is a hallmark of depression. Rising above the social standing of one’s parents can cause feelings of happiness and sadness at the same time, even though a fulfillment of parental hopes and dreams is achieved. Mr. Boehner seems to become acutely tearful upon recalling the struggles of his parents.

John Boehner was the second of twelve children and grew up in a two-bedroom house in Cincinnati in which his parents slept on a pullout couch. He worked at his family’s bar (founded by his grandfather in 1938) starting at age 8, and went on to be the first person in his family to attend college. He now maintains tight relationships with a circle of lobbyists representing businesses such as Goldman Sachs, Altria, R.J. Reynolds, MillerCoors, and Citigroup. In June 1995, Boehner distributed campaign contributions from tobacco industry lobbyists on the House floor as congressional representatives were weighing how to vote on tobacco subsidies. According to The New York Times:

They have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaigns, provided him with rides on their corporate jets, socialized with him at luxury golf resorts and waterfront bashes and are now leading fund-raising efforts for his Boehner for Speaker campaign, which is soliciting checks of up to $37,800 each, the maximum allowed… over the last decade he has taken 41 other trips paid for by corporate sponsors or industry groups, often to popular golf spots. That makes him one of the top House beneficiaries of such travel, which has recently been curbed as a result of changes in ethics rules.

In the end all we can do is speculate. Despite several risk factors for depression it would seem that overall Mr. Boehner is thriving.

Should a predisposition towards gloominess, or a history of mental trials, disqualify one from leadership? Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president in American history, is thought to have suffered at least two episodes of major depression. According to an article in The Atlantic:

Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation…

With Lincoln we have a man whose depression spurred him, painfully, to examine the core of his soul; whose hard work to stay alive helped him develop crucial skills and capacities, even as his depression lingered hauntingly; and whose inimitable character took great strength from the piercing insights of depression, the creative responses to it, and a spirit of humble determination forged over decades of deep suffering and earnest longing.

Do John Boehner’s crying spells hint at a personal melancholy that is in touch with the woes of humanity, grounding and fortifying him with the necessary anguish over the human condition that might lead him to become a transformative leader who improves our daily lot?

Or do his crying spells hint at a calculating persona that feeds on the dramatic spectacle of feigned sincerity, while behind the stage an agenda packed with self-promoting fund raisers, golf trips, and handshakes with corporate lobbyists takes place?

I’d like to think an honest assessment of his crying spells could be made regardless of one’s political persuasion, but this is probably impossible. Can Democrats genuinely believe that the public tears of Bill Clinton were sincerely shed?

I wish we could elect leaders like Lincoln who are genuinely prone to feeling sorrowful about the state of the world and its grim miseries and thereby possess clarity of vision, and fewer cheerleaders who tell us how great we are, and how our actions bear no consequences. Unbridled optimism, an exaggerated sense of capacity to control events, and overconfidence in one’s self can leave people vulnerable to illusion. There is such a thing as “depressive realism.” The trick is separating the wheat from the chaff, and distinguishing the tears of heroes from those of crocodiles.

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