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More than a laugh: Kamala Harris' is a sound check for a divided country

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

But Joe Navarro, a former FBI expert on body language and the author of 14 books on human behavior, 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 color, 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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