Howard Jacobson: Few human beings can resist the sight of a woman's tears – crocodile or otherwise

Hillary knows what works, and anyone who mistrusts such calculation is too naive to be allowed to vote

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None but those who were most intimate with Alexey Alexandrovitch knew that, while on the surface the coldest and most reasonable of men, he had one weakness quite opposed to the general trend of his character. Alexey Alexandrovitch could not bear to see a child or woman crying without being moved.

That's Tolstoy, of course, not me, though I accept it's hard sometimes to tell the difference. Alexey Alexandrovitch is otherwise known to us as Karenin and it's his wife Anna Karenina's tears – brought about by her confession of her relations with Vronsky – which prompt these reflections. She hides her face in her hands as she tells him of her adultery and for all the fury aroused in him against her, Alexey Alexandrovitch is aware at the same time of a rush of that "emotional disturbance always produced in him by tears". Though where you and I might have collapsed into tears ourselves – tears of rage and jealousy and maybe even compassion – Karenin neither stirs nor looks at his wife. Instead he sets his face "in a strange expression of deathlike rigidity."

Thus, when we suppose we are dealing with a cold person are we frequently mistaken. Which is not to say that Karenin is a warm man really. Only that these terms are inadequate to the complexity of our emotions, that warmth and coldness are not as distinct as we like to think, and that the disturbance wrought in us by another's tears is hard to quantify or explain. This much, however, we can say: tears leave few of us indifferent.

Which brings us to Hillary's "teary moment", the hour in which, to quote an American blogger, she turned verklempt – verklempt being Yiddish for overwrought, with the added suggestion of being choked or, as the word suggests, locked away behind the teeth. I think it helps to toss in a little Yiddish when emotions threaten to get out of control. Who knows, it might have saved the Karenins' marriage had Alexey Alexandrovitch dried Anna's nose on his handkerchief and told her not to be so verklempt. Vronsky-Shmonsky, we all make mistakes.

I, who also, though on the surface a cold and reasonable man, cannot bear to see a woman cry, knew it was curtains for Obama – in New Hampshire at least – the minute Hillary bit her lip. She wouldn't have got my vote, but then neither would Obama on the strength of that post-Iowa celebration speech – "Something's goin' on here!" I don't want a politician telling me something's goin' on here. I want him to know what's goin' on here. Something's goin' on here sounds suspiciously like preacher talk, what's goin' on being the mysterious will of the Lord. And whatever else one thinks about the Lord one doesn't want Him meddling, mysteriously or otherwise, in affairs of state.

But let's return to Hillary, since it was her verklemptitude, not Obama's born-again chutzpah, that won the day. How was it that so many newspapers, low and high, misread both the motivation and the impact of those near tears of hers? The majority of commentators saw them as the beginning of the end for Hillary; proof that her campaign was faltering and that she knew it. She was disheartened and fatigued. She was running out of funds. The stress had finally begun to show, as Obama's bandwagon rolled unstoppably towards the White House. Many newspapers wrote her off completely, and almost all, including The Independent, had Obama smiling in triumph on the front page on the very morning he had lost. Explain that.

I don't mean explain why Obama didn't win New Hampshire after all – we can debate the psephology of what happened till kingdom come.

I mean explain why we took those near tears at face value, why we didn't think they could possibly be tactical – not crocodile: you can weep real tears in the act of saving your bacon, you can be overcome by your own political savvy – and why we didn't calculate that they would swing the vote her way.

Always go to a novelist if you want an explanation of anything, I say. Come to me, or in this case go to Tolstoy. One way or another newspapermen are all versions of Alexey Alexandrovitch, confused and distracted by that rush of emotional disturbance which a woman's tears occasions in them. Confronted with Hillary's they acted as Karenin did on seeing Anna's – they went rigid. Someone, when faces are collapsing, must bring their features under control. What else are you for if you're a man? A woman's tears proceed from so mysterious a place. They well up from such depths. They embarrass us by their nakedness. And it would be ungentlemanly – unfilial even, given whose tears we encounter first – to doubt their authenticity.

In this way do men in their embarrassment demean women. For it is more insulting to suppose a woman cannot control her tears than to assume she can. The image that flashed around the world of Hillary biting her lip and misting over, worn out by a campaign more suited to the constitution of a man, upset to find herself on the losing side, without her husband and her children to console her in her hour of womanly need, was pure chick lit, even if the chick in question had looked deeper into the black heart of things than most men on the planet. Think of Hillary as Machiavellian, however, a street fighter experienced and smart enough to calculate the best way back into American hearts, and you honour her as a woman and a politician.

Tears work, is what Hillary knew. Tears sell. If it's victory you're after, go verklempt. And so she did, and lo! – victory was hers. Anyone who mistrusts such calculation in a politician is too naive, in my view, to be allowed the vote.

Bob Hawke held Australian voters in the palm of his hand, winning four consecutive elections on the strength of an ability to gush like a geyser. It was a gift that belied his rough quarried exterior. It was like striking water from a rock. Hillary the same. This is a woman who has supped with the Devil. Prick her and no, she she will not bleed. So tears from such an arid source appear as wondrous beads of humanity.

This is the fault line in democracy. We vote with uneducated hearts. Unless we are more cynical than we admit or even know and choose to be moved by manufactured tears because, in the secret recesses of our souls, we admire those politicians who possess the wherewithal to manufacture them. Women I'm talking about, not men. Men just look away.

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