From TIME magazine to The Washington Post – from Jon Stewart’s TV show to internet blogs – the focus was the same: Hillary Clinton’s laughing out loud. As Slate magazine put it, “Stop it now before someone gets hurt.” In fact, the Slate article by John Dickerson even had an audio link which allowed the reader to hear the sound of Hillary’s laughter.

Various columnists referred to Hillary’s laugh as a “cackle,” “bray,” “caterwaul,” or some other unpleasant and mostly contrived sound. Yes, if one wades through the column inches of commentary on the Clinton laughter, the consensus seems to be it’s all part of a campaign to make her appear less rigid and humorless, and more carefree and approachable. The media seems to have grown weary of commenting on Hillary’s pantsuits, coiffure, mutable makeup styles, and, recently, her cleavage.

Now the focus is on the Democratic candidate’s laugh. Or more precisely, whether the laughter is real and spontaneous or if it was contrived in the backroom of her political handlers. Earlier this week, Mrs. Clinton appeared in a marathon round of Sunday talk shows and on virtually all of them, displayed a wide repetoire of belly laughs. Often these outbursts seem to appear without rhyme or reason, confounding the likes of Chris Wallace and Bob Schieffer. “The Daily Show” played a montage of Clinton laughing as host Jon Stewart described some of them as “a robotic expression of her strategic goal: to convey to the audience how joyful she is.”

But as one reads the reports of Hillary’s laughing, the device seems more than just a tool to soften her image. The New York Times sees the stratagem as more than a softening technique. Her laughing outbursts are often in response to hostile comments or tough questions – a means to buy time and, when the laughter subsides, to focus on something else. Slate’s John Dickerson says the laughter is a sign to voters that they should pay attention, because a dodge is coming. And Frank Rich writes in the Times that Mrs. Clinton’s laugh “has all the spontaneity of an alarm clock buzzer.”

Despite Bill Clinton’s claim that his wife “has the world’s best laugh,” the device has become a metaphor for Hillary’s identity and individuality. TIME magazine’s Joe Klein describes the laughing routine as “awkward, especially when one remembers that Hillary’s campaign is focus-grouped up the wazoo.”

Perhaps the reason that Hillary’s laughing episodes are receiving this much publicity is the fact that this is truly something new. She has never laughed so observably and frequently before, giving rise to the suspicion that the whole thing is more than a personality quirk, that it is artfully contrived. The questions most likely to confront the Democratic frontrunner concern the war, health care, terrorism, the economy, immigration, crime, and the like. Not exactly the topics one would expect to find in a joke writer’s portfolio.


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