Showing Emotion in Public Life

PETE ROSE'S refusal to admit he had bet on baseball, even as he accepted a suspension from the game for so doing, robs the public of a satisfying close to the subject. No apology. No regrets. Rose made more fuss over being thrown out at home. Was Rose showing a gambling addict's denial that he had a problem? Or was his stonewalling the stoicism that athletes, politicians, and organization leaders are supposed to practice?

Sen. Edmund Muskie's outburst against the Manchester Union Leader in March 1972 was the most remarked-on break in a would-be leader's poise. Senator Muskie's emotional defense of his wife, who was insulted by the paper, was thought to have ended his presidential quest in that New Hampshire snowstorm. That too was an unsatisfying episode. Did Muskie weep, which he denied (melting snow, he said), or was he angry, which he did not deny? Was it a break in composure that led many to think he lacked a steadiness for the top political office?

Much of the Muskie discussion has focused on a man's public tears, which in American culture are taken as weakness.

But should they be? Jacob, David, Jesus, Peter wept. Remember the great photo of a black accordionist in grief as FDR's funeral train passed by? A sudden awareness of the wonder of someone or something, or of its abuse, can bring tears.

Max DePree, a business leader from Zeeland, Mich., makes a case for grown men weeping. He had received a letter from the mother of one of his firm's handicapped employees, he recalls: ``It was a touching letter of gratitude for the efforts of many people ... to make life meaningful and rich for a person who is seriously disadvantaged. Because we have a strong, albeit a quiet, effort going on in the company to empower the disadvantaged and to recognize the authenticity of everyone in the group, it seemed to be a good idea to read this letter to the officers and directors.

``I almost got through this letter but could not finish. There I stood in front of this group of people - some of them pretty hard-driving - tongue-tied and embarrassed, unable to continue. At that point, one of our senior vice presidents ... - urbane, elegant, mature - strode up the center aisle, put his arm around my shoulder, kissed me on the cheek, and adjourned the meeting.

``That is the kind of weeping we need more of.''

We should weep in anger over some things too, Mr. DePree says in ``Leadership is an Art,'' just reissued by Doubleday: superficiality; injustice; jargon that confuses rather than clarifies; the inability to tell the difference between heroes and celebrities; confusing pleasure with meaning.

How can we be stoical about what is happening to children in America? Some 375,000 children this year - one in nine births - will have entered the world with cocaine, PCP, marijuana, or another drug in their systems. At Washington, D.C., General Hospital alone, one in five mothers admits to using cocaine - and twice as many may do so.

Even the rendering of such tragedies as statistics should trouble us: These are persons starting off at a disadvantage, not numbers.

The public has to be on guard against false emotion, which manipulates. Richard Nixon's Checkers speech was a masterly appeal that saved his place on the Eisenhower ticket - in today's parlance, damage control.

The aggressive Bush campaign last fall was designed to ``make sure Dukakis came in second,'' as one of his strategists put it. Fortunately, this essentially emotional attack contrasts with the president's becalmed manner so far in office.

Pete Rose may not care, but we do.

If we routinely repress emotion in public life, how can we keep public life honest?

We don't want exhibitionism. The sumo wrestler's detachment in the ring is preferred to the operatic antics of his professional American counterpart.

We want mature public leaders. We should care less about tears than whether the men and women at the top have that rare luminous clarity in their eyes, that ability to observe our needs with compassion and full, urgent attention.

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