The tears of the world’s most powerful leader

The crying game: Obama will hire 230 more FBI agents to run background checks on gun owners.

In his final months, the president of the USA is on a mission to tighten his country’s gun control. This week he wept as he explained why. Are tears in our leaders inspiring? Or unnecessary?

Obama has just a year left as President of the world’s largest superpower. He has achieved a lot during his time in the oval office — but he has one major regret. Despite a huge number of mass shootings, he has been unable to pass any laws which tighten controls on gun ownership. This week he tried to change that, and announced executive orders which bypass a vote in Congress, and close some of the loopholes in background checks.

Many Americans passionately defend their right to bear arms. But they also have a right to ‘life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ as it famously says in 1776 United States Declaration of Independence. Those rights were stripped from first-graders in Newtown. Tears rolled down Barack Obama’s cheeks as he spoke. He paused and wiped them away. ‘Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad.’

This is not the first time he has cried in public — last week he was moved to tears during an Aretha Franklin performance but there was a mixed response from the American people. ‘We should all be crying about 32,000 American gun deaths a year,’ said a writer for The New York Times. Others accused him of faking his emotion, calling him ‘pathetic, weak and dishonest.’

Yet tears are not new among American leaders. According to historian Tom Lutz, Abraham Lincoln often cried ‘at the right moments’ during his speeches. But things had changed by the 20th century, and in 1972 Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign was destroyed after he cried during a speech — although he insisted the tears were just snowflakes melting on his cheeks.

Now, opinions can vary — in 2008 Hillary Clinton picked up votes for shedding a few tears during her first presidential campaign, but was also labelled ‘not tough enough’. The Republican John Boehner admits to crying all the time, but is just as often mocked for it.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised to see our leaders cry. ‘Jesus wept’ is famously the shortest verse in the Bible, and even ‘strongman’ President Putin has been seen crying during military parades.

Big boys do cry

Tears make our leaders human. Such openness displays an enormous amount of courage and confidence, and it proves that they care. Winston Churchill was often known to cry in parliament.

Not at all, others say. We should not care about the emotional turmoil of our leaders’ hearts, we should care about how good they are at their job. While in prison, Nelson Mandela spent years working in a limestone mine: it damaged his tear ducts until he was unable to cry at all — yet he went on to become one of the most successful presidents the world has ever seen.

You Decide

  1. What is most likely to make you cry? And how do you feel afterwards?
  2. Would you respect a politician more or less if you saw him crying? Why do you think that is?


  1. Write the word ‘crying’ in the middle of the whiteboard. As a class, take it in turns to suggest associated words. Are they mostly positive or negative?
  2. Many animals make a noise when they are scared or upset, but only humans cry tears. Research some of the evolutionary theories about why the shedding of tears developed. Which theory sounds the most plausible? Explain it to the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“When a man cries, he is called brave. When a woman cries, she is called weak.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Shouldn’t we care more about Obama’s policies than his tears?
His efforts on gun control will probably be a more lasting legacy — at least, he will hope so — but it’s still worth pausing to consider what we value in leadership. Do we want politicians to make decisions based on fact or feeling? Is their ‘emotional intelligence’ more important than negotiating skills, or policy ideas? Which do we trust most? Why? Thinking about such questions isn’t just relevant to Obama — it’s important for all of us.
I hate crying in public.
Most people do — it can feel embarrassing and even childish. But remember that your emotions are valid, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. You may even feel better afterwards. Besides, almost everyone does it at some point — even the powerful people in the world.

Word Watch

Oval office
The president’s office in the White House since 1909. Named, unsurprisingly, for its rounded shape.
It is difficult to say how many mass shootings have taken place since Obama was elected, because it depends on the definition. Do four victims comprise a ‘mass shooting’, or six? What if no one is killed? That is why some put the number at around 23 — others say it is over one thousand.
For example, one ‘private seller’ loophole means that unlicensed individuals are able to sell guns without asking for background checks. This will not be abolished by the new measures, but it will get stricter.
On 14 December 2012, 20 children and six teachers were killed at a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. President Obama describes it as the worst day of his presidency.
John Boehner
The Speaker of the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2015 says that he weeps every time he visits a school, because he wants the children to have a shot at the American dream ‘like I did’.
Jesus wept
John, 11:35. Jesus visits the tomb of his friend, Lazarus.

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