A good many animals announce their displeasure by baring their fangs, and the species “Mitt Romney” is one of them. Take for instance a moment during the final South Carolina debate, in which Romney was asked if he’d release multiple years’ worth of tax returns. Romney pulled back the corners of his mouth, and flashed a smile wide and luminescent. The transcript shows a simple, evasive answer: “Maybe.” But the audience heard something more—something sour, macabre in its unpleasantness: Mitt Romney’s fake-laugh. There may not be characters on the English-language keyboard to depict it here, but “eh heh, heh heh” gets us close. The natural reaction to this sound is immediate revulsion, which wouldn’t be a serious problem except for the fact that Romney spews this faux-laugh way, way too often.
The icky chuckle comes when he gets a question he doesn’t like, or is bothered by a comment he wishes would go away. But it’s a move beyond a practiced stall tactic, manifesting more like some kind of unappetizing, innate nervous tic. And this sound—this awful fucking sound—is seeped in its phony-baloney disingenuousness. Politicians have long deployed laughter to mock questions they find ludicrous, but Romney’s meh-grade whimsy is as devoid of mirth as any funeral. One wonders if he should just give up, and switch to that vexing trend of replacing laughter with an acknowledgment of where laughter should go. “That’s funny,” he should say. Or more on the nose, “This is me inserting laughter.” I know Romney-as-robot is one of this campaign’s most over-played tunes, but the man just makes it unavoidable. That ulcerous laugh doesn’t belong in our ears in each of these 700 godforsaken debates; it belongs coming out of one of the animatronic bears in Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree. Just small, motorized head/torso rotations and a canned burst of robo-laughs. That’s Romney.
This dourly seriocomic version of merriment can be spotted as fake a mile away. Despite Romney’s natural crow’s feet, the smile never quite becomes a genuine, Duchenne smile around the eyes, remaining instead trapped in a real-life uncanny valley. The silver lining of this po-faced goofus’ defensive laughter is watching the print media write about it. Over the summer, the Washington Post described the relentlessly unfunny Romney pulling some kind of bizarre practical “joke” in which he posed for a photo with his arms around a group of women before suddenly leaping forward, pretending one of them pinched his ass. The Post quotes his ensuing guffaws thusly: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” (See, it’s the period at the end that makes it art.) In November, the New York Times took it to the next level, writing online that, “Mr. Romney offered a fake laugh—‘Ha, ha ha,’ he stated—as a voter came to his rescue.” Perfect. For a while I wondered how many others were discomforted with his stale chortling—really, the laugh is like the aural equivalent of how being in an airport feels—but in the last week or so, there’s been a blitz of Web attention to it. The news site Talking Points Memo posted a greatest hits clip reel, highlighted by Romney telling Wolf Blitzer, “I live for laughter,” a line only previously seen on the most insipid of Facebook pages. And New York Magazine cruelly posted a video of the “Maybe” chuckle on loop for 30 seconds. It is, to be sure, a hellish half-minute, one that you pray doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. I admit the guy’s laugh seems like an odd thing to obsess over, sure. Mitt Romney could have just been your average hollow-eyed retrograde chorizo-and-pomade gyro with a stiff collar running for president. But the laugh suggests something under the surface, quietly being strangled to death.
A great deal has been made, dating back to the 2008 race, of the idea that Romney seems like the man who fired you, or would do so happily given the chance. From my perspective, I’m a bit more interested in the reverse. Could I—a “non-political” (cough) federal government employee—stay on under President Romney? Remember, it’s not without precedent: one lady who works with me has served in the same role since President Bush. No, not that one—the first President Bush. It’s no secret that people can take root working for government, and as I enjoy my work I’ll plead guilty to contemplating toiling for the man whose professional persona is colored by a flood of pink slips. But that fake laugh! What staffer who values sanity could survive with that inhuman disconnect in a boss? Last February, a study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that a mere phony smile could pollute your mood and make you worse at your job. A fake laugh, in that case, must rattle the soul something fierce. At least spherical, bile-filled Newt Gingrich offers his on-stage fuck-yous with raised arms and a genuine, villainous smile. Ron Paul has got that breathy, twangy guffaw where it sounds like he’s trying to say the letter “M” a bunch of times without his lips touching. So Romney—the victor-to-be—is left seeming like Zeppo Marx being overshadowed by his more interesting siblings, a humorless automaton at a time when levity has real value.
Here’s a quick story from 1862. It’s September, the Civil War is raging, and President Lincoln calls in a special session of his core advisers. When they arrive, he’s engrossed in a book. Some versions of this story have Lincoln reading the Bible, which I think we can all agree would be a very modern-day Republican version of the tale. But in any case, Lincoln begins reading aloud to them—not some purposeful passage from Leviticus, but a short story by the humorist Artemus Ward called, “A High-Handed Outrage at Utica.” When he finishes, he gives a big laugh, yet no one joins in. His cabinet sits in stone-faced rebuke of this frivolity. Lincoln, annoyed, replies, “Why don’t you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.” Then, setting the book down, Lincoln turned to business and announced he had privately prepared “a little paper of much significance.” It was the draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Would it be calamitous to have an overly awkward, fusty president? Who faces even minor adversities with a shield of false humor? Maybe not. Still, there remains an inflexibility suggested by a mirthless presidential hopeful. Not that Romney would be so primly literal that he’d become, like, a 1-percenter version of Amelia Bedelia, baking sponge cakes out of real sponges in the White House. But there is a sympathetic trust that people offer others who can authentically laugh and tell a joke. The clammy, patrician vibe didn’t sail for John Kerry, and there’s no reason to suggest that Romney will ever shake his similar problems of relating to those of us wincing at his vacuous heh-heh-hehs from our couch.
If you are agnostic on government serving a purpose, torn if improving the environment would deflate the economy, unsure if giving billionaires a few more million in tax rebates might create a deluge of jobs—in other words, if the biggest difference between Romney and President Obama is personality and style—it’d be nice to be the guy who’s not a rigid, aristocratic perma-CEO. Sense of humor is certainly no partisan matter, though there is something inherently humorless about all the flag-pin-or-die Americana stuff, the self-serious, crying-eagle “we will never ever apologize for America’s greatness” chest-puffery. The possibility of the left’s amusement hasn’t escaped Romney’s rivals, of course. A few weeks ago Gingrich said if Romney becomes the GOP nominee, President Obama is “going to laugh at him.” I’m not sure that’s true—but I do know that if Newt is right, at least that laugh is going to sound awfully authentic.