Like President Biden, I am a stutterer or, more accurately, a controlled stutterer. In a poll asking whether they believe Biden stutters or ever stuttered, 80 percent to 95 percent say he has not.
However, if you define a stutterer as someone who has faltered or thinks about the possibility that he might stutter in some situations, Biden qualifies as do I.
Every president preps for the State of the Union speech, but Biden, according to reports, considered his speech impediment for his one-hour, 13-minute presentation.
During the second presidential primary debate, Biden’s speech impediment was evident. Afterward, Fox News compiled a mini montage of Biden’s stumbles that commentator Steve Hilton narrated with thinly veiled laughter.
Often, new friends don’t know I stutter or have ever stuttered. For most stutterers, stuttering is situational — the phone, introductions, public speaking, and, of course, certain sounds are typically the most problematic. A controlled stutterer, such as the president, still anticipates having stuttering episodes.
While teaching at a university, I was a faculty adviser to psychology club students. I once asked those taking my classes if my stutter bothered them. They laughed. Your stutter is minor. It makes your class interesting. Another professor says “um” so often that we count. My students were being gracious and kind, looking at the big picture more than I could at that time.
Their message coincided with that of a therapist who helped me move from the negative self-label, “stutterer,” to put the situation into perspective. Since then, my self-talk has fallen along the line of, “I’m a fluent speaker whose speech is occasionally dysfunctional.” As Biden has said, “You can’t let it define who you are,” and he doesn’t.
But Biden does have a stutterer’s history. One boy at baseball camp called Biden “Stutter Boy! Stutter Boy!” as if he was calling a dog. In the seventh grade, a nun calling on the young Biden said, ‘Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what’s that word?’”
Such scarring stories don’t disappear easily, and I have my own. John Hendrickson, a writer for Atlantic magazine and a stutterer, has written eloquently about Biden’s speech impediment, including a description of Biden’s childhood.
Imagine the experience of awakening each day, anticipating what potential humiliations await you: the shame, the likely bullying. Stutterers are not victims, although they may feel that way at times. Many childhood disabilities are equal and more challenging. Nevertheless, the experience introduces a young person to what it is like to be singled out.
Empathy can easily follow. According to Hendrickson, 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.”
Psychologically, it’s easy to imagine where much of that empathy originates. Remember Brayden Harrington, the 13-year-old Biden befriended during his 2020 campaign who bravely gave a testimonial to vote for the president. To vicariously sense the anguish of an adolescent’s stuttering, watch as Brayden struggles with words and feel his challenges as he meets a difficult sound. That was me at age 13, and probably Biden too.
Biden is best known for his empathy and sensitivity. Those characteristics have done him well, even with political adversaries. Sen. Mitch McConnell famously calls the president “a real friend” and “a man of honor.”
McConnell’s not alone. Biden listens well yet stands up for his values. As a politician since age 27 voicing policy and viewpoints publicly, changes can be found, but his primary values stand true.
At times, Biden’s State of the Union presentation was eloquent, yet he may have stumbled for a sentence or two. I love and admire that Biden stutters occasionally. It puts his humanity out front. None of us are perfect, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to be, even presidents. I protest those who criticize Biden when he occasionally mangles a sentence as if they could have done as well, with or without a stutter.
Biden now faces another label, age. The challenge of meeting a defining label that limits your ability and dismisses your capability is one he has faced before. It’s unlikely to stop him this time, either.