Hillary Clinton's tearful moment on Benghazi: Will it help or hurt?

While tears were once seen as political suicide, these days it's become a way to show genuineness and connect with the public. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton testifies Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the September attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

There were a number of tense, even fiery moments in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what went wrong in Benghazi. But like many, we were struck in particular by a different display of emotion: In her opening remarks, Secretary Clinton notably teared up while discussing the murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

"For me, this is not just a matter of policy," she said. "It’s personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag-draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, and the wives left alone to raise their children."

Her voice cracked with emotion. For a brief moment it seemed she might actually break down, though she pulled it together and continued on.

As Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California later put it: "You were heartbroken by those losses in Benghazi. We saw it in your face many times – today as well. You were heartbroken, personally and professionally."

We aren't questioning the authenticity of Clinton's display (though we're sure some more cynical observers may do so). But when a public figure is on the hot seat for a massive – and in this case tragic – failure, a brief show of emotion can go a long way toward defusing attacks and generating some sympathy.     

Indeed, while tears were once seen as political suicide – famously dooming Democrat Ed Muskie's presidential campaign back in 1972 – for public figures these days, crying has become the ultimate way to demonstrate genuineness. It's a visible and powerful reminder that they are human beings, too, a way to connect with a public that often tends to see politicians as a lower life form. 

The famously self-contained President Obama cried on the eve of his election in 2008 when talking about his grandmother, who had passed on that day. He also was caught on video tearing up while thanking campaign workers after the 2012 election. 

More recently, Mr. Obama appeared to cry while delivering a statement about the Newtown shootings – pausing for several seconds, as if trying to compose himself, and wiping his eyes. That moment, more than anything else, has given weight to the argument that Obama's push for gun-control legislation is heartfelt, something that he feels personally compelled to do, regardless of the politics. 

On the other side of the aisle, House Speaker John Boehner cries so frequently in public it's become something of a joke. He famously broke down during an interview on "60 Minutes," and during his 2011 swearing-in on the House floor he wound up weeping into a handkerchief.

Ironically, Clinton herself may be partly responsible for the trend. 

During the 2008 Democratic primary, after she lost the Iowa caucuses, Clinton's high-profile moment of tears while answering a question about the personal toll of the campaign drew more commentary and analysis than almost anything else. Despite much hand-wringing about whether it might be seen as a sign of weakness, the general conclusion was that it helped her – since she went on to win the New Hampshire primary.

Clinton may or may not run for president in 2016. And if she does take the plunge, it's pretty clear that Benghazi will continue to be a line of attack for her opponents.

But her teary testimony on the matter certainly won't hurt – and, as with other "human" moments she's shown in recent years, will probably prove helpful.

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