Garry Wills is puzzled by it:
Everyone has noticed by now the non-laugh laugh of Mitt Romney, a kind of half-stifled barking. But what does it mean? It is blurted out as abruptly as it is broken off. Is it a kind of punctuation, part comma, part full stop, part interrogatory mark? What, if anything, is it trying to convey? Why does it seem more like coughing or burping than laughter?
Waldman decodes it:
[Romney's] laughs in public almost always come when he’s been asked a probing question or finds himself saying something to which he thinks his audience will react negatively. That’s why the laughs are always so jarring, not so much because of their particular form (we all do a fake laugh for other people’s benefit now and again), but because they come at utterly inappropriate moments. They come when he ought to be grimacing, not laughing. That’s why when Mitt Romney laughs, nobody laughs with him.
Am I wrong to think there is also a Mormon angle here? Parker-Stone capture it here:
One gets the sense that Mormons, perhaps because they remain deeply insecure about their religion, make an extra effort to seem utterly great, happy, nice, genial human beings. Hence what’s been called “The Mormon Mask.” (More discussion of the concept here.)
Romney laughs that way; he also talks as if he’s learned the English language from some tribe of extremely cheerful, mainstream, extremely white Americans from around 1958. The reason the Parker-Stone treatment of Mormons is so hilarious (while also affectionate) is because it’s true. We don’t really know Romney and we can’t get a grip on his personality because he won’t tell us much about the most important thing in his life: his total dedication to the doctrines and practice of a Church that teaches that white people lived in America long before native-Americans and that Jesus visited them; that God the Father has “a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; that humans can eventually become gods; and that the Garden of Eden and location of Christ’s second coming were and will be in the state of Missouri.
How to overcome the huge gap between what one believes and how the general culture would react if the details of his faith were fully explained? One option: The construction of a personality designed to mimic the least offensive, nicest, all-American persona. So Romney sounds and looks like a focus-group tested model president from 1965. But the focus group doesn’t exist – except in his own mind and manner every year of his life.
Perhaps that’s why we cannot seem to get through to the real Mitt Romney. He may have lost the ability to get through to it himself.