It's been an emotional few weeks for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
A couple of days ago, he delivered a heartfelt apology to members of the LGBTQ community for the decades-long persecution of sexual minorities by their own government. During his 20-minute speech, he took out Kleenex to dab away his tears. A few days before that, tears stained his cheeks as he apologized to residential-school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In October, he cried as he spoke to reporters upon the death of Gord Downie, lead singer of the iconic Canadian band the Tragically Hip.
There are many things that set Mr. Trudeau apart from his predecessors, and one is his open displays of emotion. Tears fall easily for him. By my count, there have been at least seven times since coming to office when he has openly wept, or had his eyes well up, overcome briefly by the moment. And that is different. To this point, no one has questioned his sincerity or suggested these episodes have been calculated in any way.
Canada is used to having stoics in the Prime Minister's Office. Long-time Hill journalists recall that Jean Chrétien might have once become emotional, during a visit to Auschwitz. (Another place that moved the current Prime Minister to tears). But few of our modern leaders have ever cried in public. One couldn't imagine, for instance, Stephen Harper ever allowing himself to appear that vulnerable in front of the cameras – or Justin's father, Pierre. (Justin is very much his mother Margaret's child in this regard).
Tears and politics have a mixed history. Edmund Muskie's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 was derailed, in large part, by a weepy moment on the campaign trail. It was seen as betraying some kind of dangerous, innate frailty. That perception began changing under Bill Clinton, who teared up on a few different occasions. Polling seemed to suggest it helped him connect more with female voters. Mr. Clinton's Republican challenger in the 1996 presidential election, Bob Dole, took note. Normally extremely reserved, suddenly he was happy to be seen dabbing his eyes.
Of more contemporary politicians, former U.S. president Barack Obama has the most in common with our current Prime Minister, at least in terms of being utterly unafraid to show the world his emotional side. The most memorable of those moments came during a news conference on gun violence in the United States. He began mentioning the tragedy at Newtown, and the little children who were murdered. "First graders," he said, shaking his head. As tears flowed heavily down his cheeks, you couldn't help but be struck by how unusual it was to see the most powerful leader in the world be so open with his feelings. (Something Donald Trump seems genetically incapable of).
We are wired to have an empathetic response when we see someone cry. But there will always be people who are suspicious of a politician's tears. When Hillary Clinton got emotional at a campaign stop during the Democratic nomination in 2008, few bought it. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused her of "fending off calamity … by playing the female victim." To many, it revealed a scheming inauthenticity.
I think Mr. Trudeau's tears suit him well. At a time when the subject of toxic masculinity is part of our everyday discussion, our feminist Prime Minister is in touch with his feelings and not ashamed to display them. His is a different type of masculinity that seems a perfect antidote to our times. Yet, he hasn't completely abandoned traditional displays of maleness – his love for boxing is genuine. Toughness is still expected as a characteristic of our political leaders, and he knows it. Public crying continues to be viewed by many as a loss of control, a sign of fragility. The BBC recently ran the headline: Can you trust a leader who cries?
Would a female PM who cried or teared up as often as Mr. Trudeau be cut the same slack? I doubt it. Margaret Thatcher was mocked mercilessly for crying when she left 10 Downing Street. But then, women have become used to battling double standards.
The playwright Arthur Miller once said that politicians are no different than actors. As a former drama teacher, Mr. Trudeau likely knows this well. Ronald Reagan's years in Hollywood unquestionably made him the tremendous communicator he was while in office. Abe Lincoln's years as a storyteller made him a great orator as president. Connecting with your audience is everything.
As the fictional Bill Clinton says in the novel Primary Colors, we need a candidate "who knows the emotional part of the game …" Justin Trudeau understands this well. And he's not afraid to show it.