Hillary Chuckles; Pundits Snort

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Forget the cleavage. It's now about the cackle.

No joke: Hillary Clinton's laugh is now being analyzed, scrutinized and, yes, mocked as if it were a sound barrier on her glide path to the Democratic presidential nomination: Is it real? Is it fake? Is it a diabolically clever attempt to portray her as a human being?

What a hoot.

Jon Stewart, setting the pace for political journalism, kicked things off last week by assembling a grab bag of giggling and guffawing when the senator appeared on all five Sunday talk shows, from a barn outside her Chappaqua, N.Y., home. As Clinton was seen bursting into belly laughs-- sometimes oddly and abruptly -- at queries by the likes of Bob Schieffer and Chris Wallace, the "Daily Show" host likened her to a robot switching into chuckle mode when aggressive interrogators needed to be neutralized.

Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the punch line, examining whether The Laugh met some vaguely defined standard of acceptability.

"Depending on who you ask," ABC's Kate Snow said on "Good Morning America," "Hillary Clinton is either having a really good time out on the campaign trail, or she's the master of a shrewd political skill disarming her critics with the gleam in her eye and a roar straight from the belly."

Fox's Sean Hannity said Clinton's "maniacal laughing fits on 'Fox News Sunday' have sparked speculation that she is trying to get voters to believe that she's not the cold, calculating candidate that the press has often characterized her as."

On MSNBC's "Hardball," author Drew Westen likened the spectacle to the infamous Howard Dean scream, saying: "I think it can get blown out of proportion. It does sound like a defensive laugh."

The Clinton campaign doesn't view this as a thigh-slapper. "She's got a great laugh," said spokesman Jay Carson, "but given the serious issues facing this country -- the mess this administration has gotten us into in Iraq, growing economic woes and millions without health care, to name a few -- we don't think voters are going to decide on their next president based on who has the most melodious laugh."

The subtext here is that the media have collectively decided that the wife of the 42nd president is the inevitable nominee and a good bet to become the 44th Oval Office occupant. Lacking much of a horse race, since Clinton has maintained a 20-point national lead over Barack Obama all year, journalists are resorting to a classic general-election question: Are Americans ready to have this woman in their living rooms every night for four years? Are they comfortable with her personality? Do they like her voice?

Plus, examining her personality quirks is more fun than deconstructing her stance on Iraq. And with Bill Clinton making the television rounds himself -- he appeared on two of the talk shows this past Sunday -- anchors get to debrief him about her funny lines.

Sometimes, as Freud might have said, a laugh is just a laugh. But not in the hothouse of a presidential contest.

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