Incoming House Speaker John Boehner's recent interview on "60 Minutes" with Lesley Stahl, where he once again cried publicly, has created a minor controversy among pundits, with observers trying to figure out the cause of his unusual behavior.
Is it depression? Or is Boehner simply in touch with his emotions? Does he wear his heart on his sleeve, or does he cry on a dime because he has a tender spot for all things American?
While it's impossible to know, some are beginning to speculate that Boehner's penchant for turning on the waterworks might have some connection to his consumption of wine. Liberal MSNBC host Ed Shultz, half-jokingly, called Boehner a "cheap drunk" the other day, Capitol Hill aides of both parties are wondering, and there's even a web page devoted to it.
So is drinking the issue -- and why might a person struggling with drinking be more prone to weeping in public?
Speaking generally, Dr. Robert DuPont, who served as the second White House drug czar and was the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, tells me that "alcohol reduces inhibitions. Whatever emotion you have, you're more likely to express it [when drinking]." DuPont added that alcohol reduces the functioning of the frontal lobes, and "the frontal lobes have to do with judgment, which is why [intoxicated] people do impulsive behavior."
Alcohol also "brings out underlying emotions," explains Dr. Michael Fingerhood, an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. "It generally is unmasking what is inside them."
As is to be expected, Republican aides and lobbyists are not anxious to publicly discuss whether the incoming House speaker might have a drinking problem. And Boehner's staff declined to discuss the crying question at all. For his part, though, Boehner -- who was described in one profile as "a heavy-smoking, hard-drinking former linebacker" -- has made no secret of his affection for merlot, and those familiar with Capitol Hill know he frequents The Capitol Hill Club, as well as a favorite Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill, where he is frequently spotted sipping vino.
When President Obama mentioned that he ran into Rep. Boehner at a holiday party last year drinking eggnog, Boehner responded, "I was drinking wine." And when recently asked about attending a "Slurpee summit with the president," Boehner quipped, "How about a glass of merlot?"
For years, political professionals have quietly discussed Boehner's drinking. Some have told me off the record that his mannerisms remind them of that of an alcoholic. So far, most of the public speculation having to do with the connection between drinking and Boehner's crying has come from the left. In addition to Ed Shultz, liberal talk show host Randi Rhodes recently implied Boehner's crying was due to his drinking.
But the speculation is becoming more widespread. Earlier this year, Joe Scarborough noted of Boehner that "by 5 or 6 o'clock at night, you can see him at bars." And as Politico reported, "One of [Boehner's] GOP colleagues noted that Boehner cries more often later in the day."
Sometimes when he's tearing up, he also appears to be slurring words, as was the case during a 2007 floor speech. But even here it's impossible to diagnose (if the Terry Schiavo case taught us anything, it's not to diagnose something via video). Boehner's slurred words might simply be a result of his trying to speak loudly while not trying to cry. On the other hand, it should be noted that "occupational functioning" is frequently mentioned when defining "alcoholism."
So do physicians who work in this field believe it is fair to conclude that Boehner's crying or slurring of words means he is speaking while intoxicated? Not necessarily. According to Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale University School of Medicine, "Out of context, [Boehner's] simply tearing up would not be a red flag for me."
Michael Fingerhood echoed that notion, telling me that if he observed a friend crying on the job, "I would be concerned, but I would not assume anything."
If Boehner were choking up over random things, his critics might have a better case to make, but his defenders note that his tears coincide with his talking about something serious or sentimental to him -- whether it's his family or the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, he is not alone. Both George W. Bush and his father, while president, would often become emotional when speaking in public -- especially while discussing U.S. military men and women who'd fallen in service to their country.
Sobriety certainly wasn't the issue with them. Bush 41 was known to drink only occasionally, always in moderation, and by the time Bush 43 became president he was a teetotaler. Their penchant for waterworks was so well known to them that father and son avoided eye contact at the younger Bush's inauguration. "We Bushes cry when we're happy, and when we're sad," the senior Bush said. Younger son Jeb Bush copped to being a crier, too, and seemed to blame it on the old man. "Bush men always cry," Jeb Bush said in 2002. "It's a little genetic problem I got from my dad."
This emotive behavior also came in the context of a changing cultural milieu. In 1972, a tear that formed in Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie's eye hurt his chances-- even though he was defending his wife against malicious allegations by a Republican newspaper. By 2004, however, when Democratic nominee John Kerry welled up, it helped counteract an image of diffidence. So John Boehner's tears are, by themselves, hardly the liability they once would have been.
"There are just a couple things that John feels very strongly about that target his emotions," explains Kevin Madden, a former Boehner staffer. "Family -- he cares very strongly about public service -- and he feels very deeply about providing children with an advantage so they can pursue the American dream."
Regarding Boehner's election night tears, Madden says: "Everything he aspires to be as a public servant had been realized that night, and that was something that hit him. And he wears his heart on his sleeve."
And yet Boehner's public crying, as evidenced by the amount of coverage, is abnormal in our society. According to one psychology textbook, "adults are not supposed to demonstrate signs of emotional distress in social, performance, or work settings."
There are others reasons that could explain public crying, including depression (a common symptom is crying "for no reason"). Barbara Walters recently argued Boehner might have "an emotional problem." These are not necessarily mutually exclusive: As Dr. DuPont told me, serious drinking problems are associated with depression. (Other sedatives besides alcohol could also produce a similar response).
Most experts I talked to said that if a person exhibits strong emotional behavior over the span of a lifetime, there is little to be worried about. What is more concerning, however, is an abrupt change in how a person demonstrates emotion. Tumors, for example, have been known to cause drastic emotional changes in patients.