Bwah-ha-ha! What's with Hillary's laugh?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 28 2007 5:29 PM

Bwah-Ha-Ha!

What's with Hillary's laugh?

When former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe told columnist Roger Simon that Hillary Clinton's "great belly laugh" was proof of her unseen human side, could he really have been talking about this noise? (Click on the player below to listen to Hillary's laugh.)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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Call it a caterwaul, call it a bray, call it what you will, the sound the Democratic front-runner makes when she performs the actions of mirth are now a part of the political conversation.

Comedians see the laugh the way editorial cartoonists view Barack Obama's ears—an enormous target with endless possibilities. The laugh is, um, highly idiosyncratic. And it's something new to make fun of, since Clinton's hairstyles, pantsuits, makeup, and cleavage have been pretty well pawed over.

Clinton's ideological enemies have had fun, too. Matt Drudge posted a sound clip of it, and Sean Hannity raised the pressing question of whether Clinton's laughter was presidential. Hannity should be reminded that George Bush's Beavis laugh was such an accurate imitation of the teenage cartoon reprobate he should have had to pay royalties. Like all aspects of the Clinton campaign, there's sexism in the giggle critique: Women can only laugh in certain preapproved ways. Historically, men have categorized women's laughter as a way to diminish them—they either cackle like a witch, or they titter like a schoolgirl.

Liberals, always on the lookout for signs of artifice from Clinton, are concerned that the laugh is staged to make the candidate appear more lighthearted and approachable. If so, it's certainly not working. The laugh sounds forced—tacked on to warm Hillary's persona.

If bwah-ha-ha is a strategy, an aide should stop it now, before someone gets hurt. Alternatively, the campaign should indignantly mention the criticism of the laugh in a fund-raising letter, the way aides did the Washington Post article about Clinton's cleavage.

Clinton also needs to ditch the laugh because it has become her tell. Like all poker players, politicians have a sign that they're bluffing. For Newt Gingrich, the tell was when he said "frankly." Dick Cheney uses that same word to dissemble, too. "In all candor" is another signal that a hedge is coming. Nixon had lots of tells—his tense smile, the pod of sweat on his upper lip—it was as if his tiny little truth instinct was trying to break free any way it could.

Hillary's laugh appears during discussions of her vote to authorize force against Iraq and her failed 1993 health-care plan, and during attacks from rivals. All politicians laugh a little to buy time—regular humans do it, too—but the whole point of political evasion is to get voters to focus on something else. In this way, Clinton's laugh backfires. It signals to voters that they should pay attention, because a dodge is coming.

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