(CNN) – Sometimes a historic moment arrives like an IMAX movie: a big, loud, jarring event that bends the arc of history.
Other times, though, it sneaks up on people. It seems modest at the time, but only later do Americans realize it marked a turning point — that something new had burst onto the national stage and the old rules no longer applied.
Did President Barack Obama have such a moment this week when he wept openly about children killed by gun violence?
Some say yes, and that Obama’s tears were more radical than people realize. Most people know the backdrop: Whileannouncing executive orders Tuesday to strengthen gun control laws, Obama halted as the cameras clicked. He tried to regain his composure, but then the tears flowed as he talked about 20 schoolchildren murdered by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
Some commentators later said the moment was remarkable because Obama is known for his apparent Spock-like emotional detachment.
But the moment was more than remarkable; it was revolutionary, several historians and political scientists say.
“This is the most emotion an American president has ever shown on camera,” says Jerald Podair, an associate professor of history at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “I can almost guarantee that when there is some sort of collage shown of this president’s presidency, this one moment will be in there.”
Obama didn’t just get weepy, Podair and others say. He introduced something new to American public life on three levels: spiritual, political and presidential.