Joe Biden and I share a problem that’s not always easy to talk about. In fact, that’s the problem. We stutter. That makes a lot of things hard to talk about.
Now that the 77-year-old former vice president is running for president, many people understandably are asking whether his notorious gaffes, bloopers and stumbles are related to his age.
For example, Google up “Biden forgets Obama’s name” and you will be linked to video and commentary about Biden briefly blocking on the former president’s name before quickly substituting “my boss.”
Yes, there have been a number of occasions in which Biden in his haste rattled off a real blooper, like referring to the “G-8” when he meant G-7.
Or referring during the most recent Democratic debate to his endorser Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois as “the only African American woman ever elected to the Senate” – even as a surprised and amused Sen. Kamala Harris, the second African American woman elected to the Senate, stood only a few feet away.
But his “my boss” moment was different. It sounded to me like a familiar stutterer’s dodge: When you bump up against a word that’s not going to let you proceed without a struggle, you just switch to another word.
Another one of the nation’s 3 million stutterers, according to the Stuttering Foundation’s estimate, who agrees with that view of Biden’s supposed gaffe is John Hendrickson, a senior editor and fellow stutterer at The Atlantic. As the presidential race has tightened, raising new questions about frontrunner Biden’s debate performance, The Atlantic has posted an insightful profile of him and his stuttering challenges.
Maybe the voters who worry about his mental fitness would be more understanding, Hendrickson writes, if they knew he’s still fighting a stutter.
I learned about Biden’s verbal struggles close-up when he spoke at the 2016 gala of the American Institute for Stuttering in New York, where I, as a board member, was master of ceremonies.
“Your stutter does not define who you are,” he said to stutterers and their families in his speech, which is posted on YouTube.
“Secondly when you commit yourself to a goal, when you persevere in the face of struggle, you discover strengths you never thought you had and that I guarantee you’re going to need someday.”
One example he offered young folks had particular resonance for me and, I’m sure, I wasn’t alone. “When you walk up to that girl and say, ‘W-w-w-will you go to the p-p-p-prom with me?’ it takes more ... darn courage to do that than about anything any of you have ever done in your whole life.”
Indeed, like many of the rest of us, he suffered through various humiliations, nasty nicknames and even fistfights as a kid. He fondly recalls how his mother scolded one teacher, a Catholic nun, for mocking his stutter in class. Thanks, Mom.
But I also rooted him on as he recalled memorizing Emerson and Yeats so he could recite them in front a mirror to train himself to speak without contorting his facial features. He also volunteered for speech and debate opportunities, as I did, which prepared him for politics – and me for television news-panel shows.
“Out of everything terrible, Joey,” he quoted his mom as saying, “something good will happen if you only look hard enough for it.”
Should more voters know about Biden’s stuttering challenges? He certainly shouldn’t try to run away from it, says another stutterer, Michael Sheehan, a Washington-based communications coach who has been helping Biden prepare for debates. Passing along some campaign advice from MSNBC host Chris Matthews, who was sharing a quote favored by Robert F. Kennedy, Sheehan told me, “Always hang a lantern on a problem.”
I agree. I’m sure many readers reacted to The Atlantic revelations as Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at the conservative National Review, did on his magazine’s website: “I had no idea, but it helps explain some of his verbal tics.”
Indeed it does. But, politics aside, what should really matter to voters isn’t Biden’s speech problems but how well he rises above them.