April 10, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Let’s center Biden’s stutter

We should recognize the product of a lifetime of effort borne of hardship: a brain that’s fitter than the average 81-year-old’s.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The House Republicans are taking a cue from Donald Trump by behaving as if the president’s stutter were some kind of character flaw. That’s why they’re asking for the audio files of the special counsel’s interviews with Joe Biden. They’re looking for shareable content with which to smear him. 

Liberal and Democratic allies are reasonably defensive. Whenever a Republican gets on television to suggest that there’s something not quite right with Biden, they leap at the chance to point out when his accusers stumble over their own words. Such hypocrisy-hunting was on display last night when California Congressman Eric Swalwell, commenting on House Republican Darrell Issa’s remarks on the US Department of Justice’s refusal to release the audio files, said: “Issa literally stutters as he takes a cheap shot against Biden’s stutter.” 

I get the impulse, but if we’re only seeing hypocrisy, we’re only seeing half the truth. Indeed, hypocrisy-hunting actually accepts as legitimate the original accusation – that something’s not quite right with Joe Biden. It asks us to believe that no one’s perfect, that we all stumble at times and that Republicans act like they’re better than everyone else. 

While that might take the Republicans down a notch, it doesn’t elevate Biden. I think we should. Stuttering isn’t a moral failing. (Most liberals and Democrats would agree on that.) But neither is it a liability. It’s a strength, indeed, a broadly invalidated superpower. It’s why, though he’s lived more than eight decades, the president is as sharp as ever. 

A lifetime of effort borne of hardship
What does it mean to “overcome” a stutter? If we mean overcoming an innate quality about ourselves that has been deemed unacceptable by society in the hope of one day being acceptable, I think we’re badly undervaluing the product of the immense labor that goes into it. 

Since a young age, Biden has had to do at least twice the mental work of someone without a stutter. He couldn’t just speak, as others did. He had to think before speaking – think twice, three times, maybe more. He had to learn techniques, experiment and fail, sometimes painfully. I’m sure there are many levels of cognition always going at once.

Most important, he was forced into putting in the work, because the stigma was so great. What’s the result of a lifetime of effort borne of hardship? A brain that’s much fitter than the average 81-year-old’s.

Hard mental labor
I’m no doctor. Nor do I stutter. If you wish, take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. But I do have ADHD or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. People like me still face our own stigmas, principally the one built into the name of our “disorder.” It says that we can’t focus! 

In fact, there is no attention-deficit. There’s an attention-surplus. It just depends on timing and context. We can’t stop focusing on things that interest us, which are often things that don’t interest everyone else. That’s our real problem. We’re out of sync with others’ interests.

One of the results of having learned about my condition well into adulthood is that I can look back and marvel at everything I’ve had to do to fit into a non-ADHD world. People like me are like Ginger Rogers. We dance the same dance to the same music, but we do it backwards in high heels while making it all seem effortless. We are hyper-aware of the artifice undergirding our lives, but hide it for the sake of others. A lesson we never forgot: Too much meta is too much for most people.

Point is, people with ADHD, like people who stutter, have to do a lot of hard mental labor to meet the needs, norms and desires of our society. We do twice the work, and more, just to fit in, and one of the products of doing all that work is surpassing everyone’s idea of normal. We can do amazing things! Some of us publish newsletters about politics in plain English while others become president of the United States.

Trump can never have what Biden has
And as we get older, we get better at it. So I don’t find it surprising to read stories about White House aides struggling, though mildly, to keep up with the president. He might be an octogenarian. He might have grown frailer, physically. But he’s been flexing his brain muscle harder, faster and longer than anyone in his administration has been alive. 

This is important to bear in mind when considering the framing of the coming election as a choice between two old men. As Hillary Clinton put it: “One is old and effective and compassionate and has a heart and really cares about people. And one is old and has been charged with 91 felonies. I don’t understand why this is even a hard choice, really.” 

Indeed, it is an easy choice, but that framing still puts the candidates on the same level. Though it privileges Biden by noting what he isn’t (a would-be convicted felon), it still obscures who he is, and what he has accomplished, as a consequence of the way he was born. His reserve of knowledge, wisdom and skill is vast, not in spite of his stutter, but because of it. And it’s a quality that Trump does not possess. He never can. He has never, not once, put that kind of work into anything.

The president’s defenders are well-meaning. The objective of their hypocrisy-hunting is taking the focus off Biden’s stutter and putting it back on Trump and the GOP’s penchant for dehumanizing people. But the president’s stutter isn’t a liability. It should be centered. Americans are going to choose between two old men. Biden is the better choice, not because of what he isn’t, but because of what he has become.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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