Last night’s debate was a swirling vortex of chaos. From the first question, Trump set out to draw blood by belligerently hurling crude quips, below-the-belt jabs, and outright lies. Between the President’s sneering insults, Biden tried to compose himself and get his points across. Sometimes he was successful. At other moments, he struggled to trudge through – getting tongue-twisted and snagged by words and phrases. To the uninformed, these ‘gaffes’ may seem indicative of Biden’s old age and mental decay. In actuality, we need to remember that Joe Biden has been fighting to overcome a stutter all his life.
One can’t be faulted for not knowing this fact about the former Vice President. Most people don’t know that Biden grew up with classmates calling him Stutterhead and taunted him with “H-H-H-H-Hey, J-J-J-J-J-Joe B-B-B-B-Biden.” On the rare occasion Biden mentions his stutter, he frames it as something he has overcome, not something that occasionally still plagues him. There are videos posted showing him meeting young stutterers, handing them his cellphone number, and encouraging them to follow his lead. Earlier this year in February during a CNN town hall, a pastor asked him directly about what advice he would give to a young person struggling with a stutter. “I was afraid if people knew I stuttered,” he said before telling the audience he used to recite Yeats in front of a mirror in the middle of the night.
Now, at 77 years old, Biden is able to outmaneuver his stutter in most situations expertly, but it occasionally catches him. The story that best outlines this comes from John Hendrickson of The Atlantic, also a life-long stutterer. The piece, titled “What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say,” was published earlier this year when Biden was still in the primaries running against Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren, and Steyer. Six debates had already occurred throughout 2019, with Biden receiving luke-warm performance reviews from public polling and punditry. The defining debate moment for Biden was a negative one: when Kamala Harris criticized past resistance to federally mandated busing and collaborations with segregationist senators. Another lesser-known moment was when he had another bout with Kamala Harris regarding healthcare; Henrickson writes:
At first, Biden sounded strong, confident, presidential: “My plan makes a limit of co-pay to be One. Thousand. Dollars. Because we—” He stopped. He pinched his eyes closed. He lifted his hands and thrust them forward, as if trying to pull the missing sound from his mouth. “We f-f-f-f-further support—” He opened his eyes. “The uh-uh-uh-uh—” His chin dipped toward his chest. “The-uh, the ability to buy into the Obamacare plan.” Biden also stumbled when trying to say immune system.
Fox News and the Trump campaign love to edit these verbal stumbles into thuggish attack montages, pointing to them as if they prove Biden has grown senile. Trump himself – while never mentioning Biden’s stutter directly – floats the ludicrous idea that Biden is not able to talk without enhancement drugs. “They give him a big, fat shot,” the President said last weekend, “and he comes out and for two hours he’s better than ever.”
Joe Biden’s brand has always been Uncle Joe – the hardworking, blue-collar boy from Scranton. He is far too mild-mannered to complain about his stutter or use it as an excuse to shore up his public gaffes. Still, many Biden allies wish he would address the subject more, especially within the stuttering community. “Biden allows that to happen by not naming it for what it is,” Emma Alpern, co-leader of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Stuttering Association and co-founder NYC Stutters, told The Atlantic. “I think he’s dug himself into a hole of not saying that he still stutters for so long that it would strike people as a little weird.”
When discussing his stutter, Joe Biden often mentions the film The Kings Speech, an award-winning film is about King George VI overcoming a debilitating stammer to lead Britain during WWII. Like King George, Biden has spent his entire life slowly rising from ridicule to admiration. Last night’s debate was a disaster, but buried underneath the chaos, a young Joe Biden was sticking it to the schoolyard bullies and showing courage in the face of a lifelong impediment. It is something we can all admire.