US Vice President Kamala Harris addresses the National Bar Association at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. File/Agence France-Presse
Noah Bierman, Tribune News Service
“You’re writing a story in the Los Angeles Times about the vice president’s laugh? I think that’s laughable.” — Bakari Sellers, Democratic lawyer and CNN commentator. Seriously, to weigh how the first woman and first woman of colour to become vice president is perceived, Kamala Harris’ laugh may provide the ultimate gauge.
While many people just hear levity in her laugh, those on the right react with heckles and attacks, a difference that says as much about the divisive, personally vicious state of politics as any debates over policies.
President Donald Trump made fun of “the laugh” at a late October rally in Pennsylvania. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” he bellowed mockingly, and mirthlessly, adding his own snicker as he otherwise savaged Harris for being “more liberal than ‘crazy Bernie.’”
Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker and Fox News commentator, in an interview called Harris’ laughs “distinctively jarring.” And a male host on Newsmax claimed at one point, “Well, the queen bee — cackling Kamala — is losing her support among Democrats.”
Harris’ supporters and some outside observers say the attention to her mirth is not funny. Instead, they say, it reflects the double standard she faces as a pathbreaking politician as well as the pressure to appear at once likable and tough, yet still authentic. Sellers called the critics’ catcalls “obscene and upsetting — because she’s such a great spirit and that’s what she exudes in her laugh.”
“If it weren’t her laugh, it’d be her smile or the way she dressed,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change, a group that advocates for racial justice. “It is just another conversation that demonstrates how difficult it is to be a woman-of-colour leader in this country.”
Besides, say those who know her, Harris genuinely likes to laugh.
“She’s just a person who tries to find joy and happiness in everything,” said Nathan Barankin, her former chief of staff when Harris was in the Senate and, before that, California’s attorney general. He recalled her pun sessions with advisers that would put her in stitches. “I’m not saying every time you see or hear the laugh it’s the appropriate moment,” he said. “It’s not like someone just told a joke. But I’m saying that’s where it comes from.”
At times, like when she walks onto a stage after a lengthy introduction, Harris laughs unprompted in the way that politicians often do to try to demonstrate humility — as if to suggest that, while she may be a history-making vice president, she also sees the attention around her as a bit much.
Or she’ll laugh amid an earnest policy discussion, seemingly trying to bring the subject down to earth. At a speech in Michigan this month, Harris talked about people waiting months to get their COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s July!” she said with a guffaw. “It’s time!”
But the laugh that’s proved the most polarizing is one that some observers argue is not a laugh at all. It’s her reaction, often seemingly inappropriate in the moment, when Harris is asked a question she doesn’t like. She laughs, and it’s hard to tell if she is doing so to deflect or to signal she thinks the query is dumb, or both.
As state attorney general in California, for example, she drew media attention for a deflective chuckle in 2014 when she dodged a question about whether she favoured pot legalization. She replied only with a laugh and a few words that basically restated the question.
She got far more attention recently for laughing defensively and awkwardly when she was pressed repeatedly last month by NBC News anchor Lester Holt on why, as President Joe Biden’s envoy on migration from Central America, she had not yet visited the US-Mexico border.
“And I haven’t been to Europe,” she said, laughing before adding peevishly: “I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.” (She has since visited there.)
That laugh made it onto news sites, social media posts and cable channels across the political spectrum. Conservative media went into overdrive over Harris’ “cackle” or “giggle,” mentioning it at least 151 times on Fox Business Network, Fox News, Newsmax and One America News Network in the six weeks since the Holt interview, according to Media Matters, a left-leaning group that monitors conservative media. Fox twice aired a montage that consisted of Harris laughing.
Alice Stewart, a Republican consultant who has worked on several presidential campaigns, complained, “It’s the obvious attempt to evade a question. And she often gets away with it.”
But Joe Navarro, a former FBI expert on body language and the author of 14 books on human behaviour, said people commonly respond to uncomfortable situations with laughter. He contended that is a sign of tension, a reflexive, self-soothing mechanism. Navarro said he believes Harris gets unfair scrutiny based on her race and gender. But, he added, as a politician she should be aware that audiences may be turned off by her “tittering” in the face of tough questions. Harris’ spokeswoman, Symone Sanders, didn’t find the subject amusing, saying only that the vice president and her staff “are focused on the work, and the work speaks for itself. The results speak for themselves.”
Stewart and other Harris critics say they would apply the same standard to a white male politician. And it’s true that President George W. Bush got unwanted scrutiny for what even some supporters called his “smirk.”
Yet the attention to Bush’s smirk wasn’t so intense, said Jennifer Palmieri, who was Hillary Clinton’s communications director in her 2016 campaign and wrote a book, “Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World.”
Bush “had a smug smirk. It was bad,” Palmieri said. But, she added, “For Harris, it’s like ‘We don’t like the sound of her laugh. We don’t like when she laughs.’ These things define women in a way, and linger for women leaders in a way that they don’t for men.”
Clinton’s boisterous laugh provided fodder for a “Saturday Night Live” skit and much political punditry. It was dissected for its pitch, volume and authenticity. Advisers’ debate over how to handle attention to the laugh was captured in an internal email stolen by Russians and published by WikiLeaks in 2016. In it, campaign chairman John Podesta defended her laugh to another adviser, praising it as part of Clinton’s “authentic weirdness.”
While Palmieri laughed at recalling that backhanded compliment, she lamented that women, and especially women of colour, have to contend with such matters as they climb the political ladder. If they respond to a tough question with tension, they are criticized as angry, she said; if they try to defuse it with laughter, they are marked as phony, or worse.
Palmieri said that when people gave conflicting advice to Clinton — she needed to be softer and more “likable,” yet also “masculine and strong” — the former first lady, senator and secretary of state would ask them to give her an example of a female world leader who’d pulled off that feat.
No one had an answer.
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