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Tears, fashion and families: What’s OK for 2020 contenders & what’s not?

Maybe we are seeing real change in how people view presidential candidates. And perhaps, in what we expect or accept about ordinary men and women.

photo of article author
Mary Stanik
If you remember the 1972 presidential campaign, or are just a student of presidential elections, you might recall one Edmund Muskie. Muskie, then a U.S. senator from Maine who was the 1968 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, was considered by many pundits to be the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But during a snowy Feb. 26, 1972 speech, Muskie tore into a newspaper publisher for allegedly impugning Muskie’s wife’s character. Photos showed Muskie’s face appearing to crack with emotion. It was reported by a good many journalists that he was crying, though Muskie said any facial cracks were due to anger and that any “tears” were just melting snow. Snow, anger or real tears notwithstanding, Muskie’s presidential aspirations melted soon enough in a societal climate that could not handle real or possible crying from a man who wanted to be president.

Muskie’s story might come to mind in a sort of reverse way when examining the matter of Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke (someone I rather admired during his recent Senate campaign in Texas) when he jauntily announced that he sometimes helps his wife raise their children. Soon after, O’Rourke walked back his comment in a much more sedate, “acknowledging rich white man privileged status” style after being asked by journalists and a lot of voters as to whether any woman running for president or even dog catcher could get away with such a seemingly careless (though perhaps, just perhaps, quite true) statement. Of course, most see the question as valid. But for those who have witnessed more than a few presidential campaigns, or have just lived for more than a few decades, the very fact that a man, and a wealthy one at that, was criticized for joking about being an occasional parent might have marked a somewhat new day of sorts in presidential campaign history. And maybe even American life.

Certain doom? Maybe not

The realization that societal judgments, whether they are constructive or not, are not entirely as they were not that long ago does not stop with O’Rourke’s joke. Much will surface before anyone becomes the Democratic nominee. Still, consideration of at least some of the presidential contenders (male and female, not all of them white, a diversity of which is something we’ve not seen enough of before) and aspects about them that might have spelled certain doom not that many years ago for any sort of political career has to make one think that maybe we are seeing real change in how people view presidential candidates. And perhaps, in what we expect or accept about ordinary men and women.

For example, take the case of Kirsten Gillibrand, apron-clad while enthusiastically entering the “I’m a Mom” room in a fashion a lot of women in politics and business in this country’s not distant past have run marathons in severely tailored suits to avoid for more than brief cameos. Thus far, Gillibrand seems to be taking more questions for her stands on matters such as immigration than her stance as a mother who isn’t uncomfortable in a kitchen.

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Then there is the never-married Cory Booker. And Pete Buttigieg, who is in a same-sex marriage. During these early days, Buttigieg’s star is rising more than many who remember a more homophobic America might have thought possible. As well, we’re not seeing Booker painted by many as someone of whom to be wary just because he is a straight bachelor.

Plain glasses, little to no makeup …

And then we have Elizabeth Warren, who has achieved much as a law professor and now U.S. senator. Still, when I see her low-maintenance hairstyle, plain eyeglasses, uniform black top and pants, and almost no jewelry or makeup, I think about Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination (and someone who also faced more than one “crying” moment). I consider the grief Clinton encountered regarding her hairstyle cavalcade, whether a makeup artist did her face or not, and when she was advised to ditch her black pantsuits in favor of expensive jewelry and a widely hued assortment of designer ensembles deemed proper for a woman Clinton’s age (just two years older than Warren). Then I think about how Bernie Sanders, with his less-than-fitted suits, unkempt hair, very plain glasses, and 77 years remains the hippie grandpa people many decades his junior have always wanted. And we can’t discount the thought of Joe Biden entering the race, even though (should he be elected in 2020) he would be nine years older than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected in 1980.

In the final analysis (and that is a long, long way off), it almost certainly says much about our progression as a society that a lot of us are ready to criticize a man who might not always be the most active parent, support a woman politician who revels in being a mother, cheer a gay man’s success, not fear a never-married man, and not care whether highly qualified people more than 65 are not only candidates but aren’t submitting to constant makeup, hair and wardrobe ministrations.

And so, the next year is sure to provide us much in the way of debate as to what really and truly matters in a president. We’ll see how much we value candidate policy positions versus their appearances or inherent personal qualities.

Such might be especially true if someone does cry.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”


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