I can’t say with any certainty whether Joe Biden, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president, is in “cognitive decline,” as many journalists and critics have begun to ponder aloud. I can say with certainty that what you are seeing of Biden during debates and on the stump can plausibly be explained by his lifelong battle with stuttering. I also know why it is easy for anyone to point to a few clips of Biden to make a seemingly compelling yet misleading case that his verbal stumbles are really about cognitive problems.
Biden has spoken openly about his stutter, which he’s struggled with since childhood, only occasionally. Words beginning with “s” were particularly difficult when he was growing up, Biden told The Atlantic’s John Hendrickson, who also stutters. Biden wrote a letter for National Stuttering Awareness week in 2015 for the National Stuttering Foundation and mentors young people who struggle with their speech. Journalists who don’t know this history or don’t take the time to understand the complexity of the speech disorder will likely inadvertently mislead their audiences during any discussion about Biden’s mental capabilities.
If you only knew me from a short local TV news piece done about 25 years ago in the Greenville, S.C. area, you’d believe the severe stutter I’ve dealt with for most of my life—which I spoke about at Nieman’s 80th anniversary gathering in 2018—had been magically cured by something called the “SpeechEasy.”
The video is likely deep in the station’s archives collecting dust. I was visiting the area to get fitted for the newly-developed product designed to help stutterers. My wife dipped into her retirement account to help pay for it. The piece was shaped like a hearing aid, molded to fit my ear. It was designed to create a choral effect, mimicking what stutterers experience when they sing along to a song on the radio or in a choir, when stuttering all but disappears. While the act of speaking is different from the act of singing, the SpeechEasy creators believed the effect could lead to increased fluency.
After I received my device, a dutiful local TV reporter stopped me in the lobby of the office building where the SpeechEasy was being sold and asked if I was willing to be interviewed. I obliged. I’ve long been eager to help spread the word about the complexity of stuttering and any techniques or technology that might help stutterers.
He pinned a small mic to my shirt. He asked that I answer a few questions without the device in my ear. I did, stuttering throughout my answers. Then he asked me to answer a few with the device in place. I did. His cutaway emphasized what he said was a major difference in how I spoke with the aid of the SpeechEasy.
And that was that.
His story “proved” how effective and miraculous the SpeechEasy was. Had he done a follow-up a week later, it would have shown that I sent the device back and got a 90 percent refund because it didn’t work for me—at all. And yet, if all you had to go on was that one short video taken by a local TV station, you would believe my stutter had been resolved by the SpeechEasy.
That’s how easy it is to mislead an audience about stuttering, even when you aren’t trying.
That’s why it is even easier to slice up a few video clips from Biden speaking during a debate or in an interview, bumbling over words, and decide that he is in cognitive decline. And as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, journalists such as NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, among others, have used those episodes to question Biden’s fitness. Greenwald himself penned a piece about Biden’s fitness and not once mentioned Biden’s battle with stuttering.
Again, I make no judgment about Biden’s cognitive abilities. I can’t say if age is catching up to him or if it’s the main cause of his stumbles. But I know that if Greenwald, Mitchell and other journalists take the time to learn about the intricacies of stuttering, they would be doing their audiences an invaluable service by providing them with context most currently don’t have.
Stuttering is not a straight line. Most young kids who stutter or show signs of stuttering don’t become adult stutterers. But once a person reaches adolescence or the teen years and is still struggling with a stutter, the stutter is likely to be lifelong.
Stuttering can manifest itself in a thousand different ways and will be more noticeable on some days or some sounds than others. Some stutterers experience weeks, months, or even years of seeming fluency, only to have those periods of relative ease unexpectedly be replaced with bouts of real verbal struggle. That’s happened to me multiple times.
That’s why it can be extremely misleading to compare an out-of-context clip of Biden from 10 years ago to a more recent Biden speaking experience. That’s why some people who knew me only briefly would be surprised to learn I am a severe stutterer, and others would be shocked that I’ve ever experienced fluency. Several times over the years, people have questioned my mental abilities when I struggled introducing myself, as they joked that I must have forgotten my own name.
Some stutterers are like the proverbial duck on the pond, seemingly at ease but struggling mightily below the surface even as they produce fluent speech. Some stutterers find it easier to talk from prepared remarks, while others, like me, are best with bare-bones outlines that leave plenty of space to ad-lib as blocks unexpectedly reveal themselves periodically as I speak. Some find a well-defined timeframe, like 90 seconds to answer a question during a debate, debilitating, while others find it liberating. Both of these realities can apply to an individual stutterer, depending on the night. Every stutterer struggles with the condition, which has genetic roots, but not all in the same way.
And it’s difficult to admit your struggles to yourself, let alone to the public, as Biden had trouble doing even during that Atlantic interview with a journalist who also stuttered. Years ago, I sat across from a speech therapist apologizing to her for not stuttering enough during a speech assessment, convinced I was speaking fluently, only to have her note in my chart that my stutter was obvious and on the extreme end during that session.
On the MSNBC politics talk show “Morning Joe,” panelists used video of Biden squeezing his eyes during a debate, while seeming to forget his train of thought during an answer. None of them seemed to know that that kind of facial tic is common to stutterers who have to, in a split second, decide to struggle through a speech block or quickly substitute words or phrases on the fly. It can look like a moment of forgetfulness—or cognitive decline when it leads to a nonsensical-sounding sentence.
For those dealing with a severe stutter, it’s just another day.
One of my nonsensical verbal tics: I often cough and quickly say “Excuse me” even when I am not sick and have done nothing for which to apologize. For some reason I still can’t explain, doing those things helps me get through stuttering blocks.
Journalists should provide audiences with as much information as possible about the health and well-being of people trying to lead the wealthiest nation on the planet. That means sometimes asking uncomfortable questions, even about a candidate’s mental health. But there is a responsible way to do it. And it can’t be done if journalists aren’t willing to educate themselves about Biden’s lifelong speaking struggle, which can be done by interviewing speech therapists who specialize in stuttering.
What to the untrained eye looks like evidence of cognitive decline might not be.