A Boehner Column to Make You Cry

Evidence-free piece suggests Speaker an alcoholic

A pointy, oversized dart to Politics Daily columnist Matt Lewis’s head-scratchingly bad piece, “John Boehner’s Crying: Is He Drinking Too Much?” The premise of the column, published overnight, is that there must be something deeper at the heart of Boehner’s propensity to cry at such unemotional things as memories of his childhood, mentions of his family, and talk of soldiers at war. And—leaping off of a comment from that sober voice of reason, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz—that the something deeper might be alcoholism.

The fact that there is no evidence of this, something Lewis acknowledges repeatedly, doesn’t stop him from lining up the experts and shaping a 1,200-plus word nick-of-time entry into the competition for year’s worst column.

Here is the moment it all goes downhill:

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.

That quote, which in any other report would be a throwaway bit of color, becomes the crux of the piece as Lewis, po-faced, asks:

So is drinking the issue—and why might a person struggling with drinking be more prone to weeping in public?

Then it’s doctors X and Y’s cue as Lewis begins an exploration of alcoholism that has almost no connection to Boehner, his supposed subject.

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.”

All interesting stuff, if obvious to anyone who’s cracked a bottle of Cab-Sav over Christmas lunch. But there’s no connection made between Boehner’s tears and these pat PSA grafs anywhere in the piece. Lewis acknowledges as much, prodding his cast of doctors to offer a diagnosis of the man they’ve seen on TV.

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.”

And here:

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.”

That, of course, does not stop him from elaborating on Dr. Schultz’s more alarming diagnosis, observing that, shock of shocks, it’s sometimes difficult for Boehner to speak clearly while crying.

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.”

In other words: “Here’s a piece of evidence I just thought of. Wait, no, that’s just ridiculous—why did I even write that down? Actually, there might be something in that…”

Unable to mount the case that Boehner’s tears might be a sign he’s headed directly to Lohan-ville, Lewis throws his hands up and eventually settles on telling us that the crying thing just kinda weird. After all, “boys don’t cry.”

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.”

Clearly someone’s never worked in a newsroom.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.