What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say – John Hendrickson | The Atlantic

 His verbal stumbles have voters worried about his mental fitness. Maybe they’d be more understanding if they knew he’s still fighting a stutter.

John Hendrickson | The Atlantic

HIS EYES FALL TO THE FLOOR WHEN I ASK HIM TO DESCRIBE IT. We’ve been tiptoeing toward it for 45 minutes, and so far, every time he seems close, he backs away, or leads us in a new direction. There are competing theories in the press, but Joe Biden has kept mum on the subject. I want to hear him explain it. I ask him to walk me through the night he appeared to lose control of his words onstage.

“I—um—I don’t remember,” Biden says. His voice has that familiar shake, the creak and the croak. “I’d have to see it. I-I-I don’t remember.”      

Joe Biden

We’re in Biden’s mostly vacant Washington, D.C., campaign office on an overcast Tuesday at the end of the summer. Since entering the Democratic presidential-primary race in April, Biden has largely avoided in-depth interviews. When I first reached out, in late June, his press person was polite but non-committal: WAS AN INTERVIEW REALLY NECESSARY FOR THE STORY? 

Then came the second debate, at the end of July, in Detroit. The first one, a month earlier, had been a disaster for Biden. He was unprepared when Senator Kamala Harris criticized both his past resistance to federally mandated busing and a recent speech in which he’d waxed fondly about collaborating with segregationist senators. Some of his answers that night had been meander­ing and difficult to parse, feeding into the narrative that he wasn’t just prone to verbal slipups — he’s called himself a “gaffe machine” — but that his age was a problem, that he was confused and out of touch.

Detroit was Biden’s chance to regain control of the narrative. And then something else happened. The candidates were talking about health care. 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 EDITED THESE MOMENTS INTO A MINI MONTAGE. Stifling laughter, the host Steve Hilton narrated: “As the right words struggled to make that perilous journey from Joe Biden’s brain to Joe Biden’s mouth, half the time he just seemed to give up with this somewhat tragic and limp admission of defeat.”

SEVERAL DAYS LATER, BIDEN’S TEAM GOT BACK IN TOUCH WITH ME. One of his aides gingerly asked whether I’d noticed the former vice president stutter during the debate. Of course, I had — I stutter, far worse than Biden. The aide said he was ready to talk about it. In November, after Biden stumbled multiple times during a debate in Atlanta, the topic would become even more relevant. 

“So how are you, man?”

Biden is in his usual white button-down and navy suit, a flag pin on the left lapel. Up close, he looks like he’s lost weight since leaving office in 2017. His height is commanding, but, as he approaches his 77th birthday, he doesn’t fill out his suit jacket like he used to.

I STUTTER AS I BEGIN TO ASK MY FIRST QUESTION. “I’ve only … told a few people I’m … d-doing this piece. Every time I … describe it, I get … caught on the w-word-uh stuh-tuh-tuh-tutter.” 

“So, did I,” Biden replies. “It doesn’t” — he interrupts himself — “can’t define who you are.”

MAYBE YOU’VE HEARD BIDEN TALK ABOUT HIS BOYHOOD STUTTER. A non-stutterer might not notice when he appears to get caught on words as an adult, because he usually maneuvers out of those moments quickly and expertly. But on other occasions, like that night in Detroit, Biden’s lingering stutter is hard to miss. He stutters —­ if slightly — on several sounds as we sit across from each other in his office.

Before addressing the debate specifically, I mention what I’ve just heard. “I want to ask you, as, you know, a … stutterer to, uh, to a … stutterer. When you were … talking a couple minutes ago, it, it seemed to … my ear, my eye … did you have … trouble on s? Or on … m?” 

Biden looks down. He pivots to the distant past, telling me that the letter s was hard when he was a kid. “But, you know, I haven’t stuttered in so long that it’s

hhhhard for me to remember the specific — ” He pauses. “What I do remember is the feeling.”

I started stuttering at age 4. 

I still struggle to say my own name. When I called the gas company recently, the automated voice apologized for not being able to understand me. This happens a lot, so I try to say “representative”, but r’s are tough too. When I reach a human, I’m inevitably asked whether we have a poor connection. Busy bartenders will walk away and serve someone else when I take too long to say the name of a beer. Almost every deli guy chuckles as I fail to enunciate my order, despite the fact that I’ve cut it down to just six words: “Turkey club, white toast, easy mayo.” I used to just point at items on the menu.

My head will shake on a really bad stutter. People have casually asked whether I have Parkinson’s. I curl my toes inside my shoes or tap my foot as a distraction to help me get out of it, a behavior that I’ve repeated so often, it’s become a tic. Sometimes I shuffle a pen between my hands. When I was little, I used to press my palm against my forehead in an effort to force the missing word out of my brain. Back then, my older brother would imitate this motion and the accompanying sound, a dull whine — something between a cow and a sheep. A kid at baseball camp, Michael, referred to me as “Stutter Boy.” He’d snap his fingers and repeat it as if calling a dog. “Stutter Boy! Stutter Boy!” In college, I applied for a job at a coffee shop. I stuttered horribly through the interview, and the owner told me he couldn’t hire me, because he wanted his café to be “a place where customers feel comfortable.”


IT HAS A STRONG GENETIC COMPONENT: Two-thirds of stutterers have a family member who actively stutters or used to. Biden’s uncle on his mother’s side — “Uncle Boo-Boo,” as he was called — stuttered his whole life. 

In the most basic sense, a stutter is a repetition, prolongation, or block in producing a sound. It typically presents between the ages of 2 and 4, in up to twice as many boys as girls, who also have a higher recovery rate. During the developmental years, some children’s stutter will disappear completely without intervention or with speech therapy. The longer someone stutters, however, the lower the chances of a full recovery —­ perhaps due to the decreasing plasticity of the brain. Research suggests that no more than a quarter of people who still stutter at 10 will completely rid themselves of the affliction as adults.

The cultural perception of stutterers is that they’re fearful, anxious people, or simply dumb, and that stuttering is the result. But it doesn’t work like that. Let’s say you’re in fourth grade and you have to stand up and recite state capitals. You know that Juneau is the capital of Alaska, but you also know that you almost always block on the j sound. You become intensely anxious not because you don’t know the answer, but because you do know the answer, and you know you’re going to stutter on it.

Stuttering can feel like a series of betrayals. Your body betrays you when it refuses to work in concert with your brain to produce smooth speech. Your brain betrays you when it fails to recall the solutions you practiced after school with a speech therapist, allegedly in private, later learning that your mom was on the other side of a mirror, watching in the dark like a detective. If you’re a lucky stutterer, you have friends and family who build you back up, but sometimes your protectors betray you too.

A Catholic nun betrayed Biden when he was in seventh grade. “I think I was No. 5 in alphabetical order,” Biden says. He points over my right shoulder and stares into the middle distance as the movie rolls in his mind. “We’d sit along the radiators by the window.”

For most stutterers, reading out loud summons peak dread. A chunk of text that may take a fluent person roughly a minute to read could take a stutterer five or 10 times as long. Four kids away, three kids away. Your shoulders tighten. Two away. The back of your neck catches fire. One away. Then it happens, and the room fills with second-hand embarrassment. Someone breathes a heavy sigh. Someone else laughs. At least one kid mimics your stutter while you’re actively stuttering. You never talk about it. At night, you stare at the ceiling above your bed, reliving it.

“The paragraph I had to read was: ‘Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentleman. He laid his cloak upon the muddy road suh-suh-so the lady wouldn’t soil her shoes when she entered the carriage,’ ” Biden tells me, slightly and unintentionally tripping up on the word so. “And I said, ‘Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentle man who—’ and then the nun said, ‘Mr. Biden, what is that word?’ And it was gentleman that she wanted me to say, not gentle man. And she said, ‘Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what’s that word?’ ” 

Biden says he rose from his desk and left the classroom in protest, then walked home. The family story is that his mother, Jean, drove him back to school and confronted the nun with the made-for-TV phrase “You do that again, I’ll knock your bonnet off your head!” I ask Biden what went through his mind as the nun mocked him. 

“Anger, rage, humiliation,” he says. His speech becomes staccato. “A feeling of, uh — like I’m sure you’ve experienced — it just drops out of your chest, just, like, you feel … a void.” He lifts his hands up to his face like he did on the debate stage in July, to guide the v sound out of his mouth: VOID.

I ask him to expand on the relationship between anger and humiliation, or shame.

“Shame is a big piece of it,” he says, then segues into a story about meeting a stutterer while campaigning.

I bring it back up a little later, this time more directly: “When have you felt shame?”

“Not for a long, long, long time. But especially when I was in grade school and high school. Because that’s the time when everything is, you know, it’s rough. They talk about ‘mean girls’? There’s mean boys, too.”

During his 2016 address at the American Institute for Stuttering, Biden told the room that he’d turned down an invitation to speak at a dinner organized by the group years earlier. “I was afraid if people knew I stuttered,” he said, “they would have thought something was wrong with me.” 

Yet even when sharing these old, hard stories, Biden regularly characterizes stuttering as “the best thing that ever happened” to him. “Stuttering gave me an insight I don’t think I ever would have had into other people’s pain,” he says. I admire his empathy, even if I disagree with his strict adherence to a tidy redemption narrative.

In Biden’s office, as my time is about to run out, I bring up the fact that Trump crudely mocked a disabled New York Times reporter during the 2016 campaign. “So far, he’s called you ‘Sleepy Joe.’ Is ‘St-St-St-Stuttering Joe’ next?”

“I don’t think so,” Biden says, “because if you ask the polls ‘Does Biden stutter? Has he ever stuttered?,’ you’d have 80 to 95 percent of people say NO.” If Trump goes there, Biden adds, “it’ll just expose him for what he is.” 

I ask Biden something else we’ve been circling: Whether he worries that people would pity him if they thought he still stuttered.  

He scratches his chin, his fingers trembling slightly. “Well, I guess, um, it’s kind of hard to pity a vice president. It’s kind of hard to pity a senator who’s gotten six zillion awards. It’s kind of hard to pity someone who has had, you know, a decent family. I-I-I-I don’t think if, now, if someone sits and says, ‘Well, you know, the kid, when he was a stutterer, he must have been really basically stupid,’ I-I-I don’t think it’s hard to — I’ve never thought of that. I mean, there’s nobody in the last, I don’t know, 55 years, has ever said anything like that to me.” 

Now his aide is knocking, trying to get him out of the room. I PUSH OUT ONE MORE QUESTION, ASKING WHAT HE SAW REFLECTED IN THAT BEDROOM MIRROR AS A KID. 

He goes off into a different boyhood story about standing against a stone wall and talking with pebbles in his mouth, some oddball way to MacGyver fluency. I do the thing stutterers hate most: I cut him off. “What did that person look like?”

BIDEN STOPS. “He looked happy,” he says. “You know, I just think it looked like he’s in control.” 

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