There was a time I dreamed of debating Rush Limbaugh. I wanted to face and rhetorically take down the famed talk show host the way I loved catching touchdown passes against top cornerbacks when I was playing football. If given the chance, I knew I could expose his contradictions and hypocrisy and lack of intellectual depth.
But I also knew that unlike football, where I either had an advantage of size and speed for my position or at least was rarely outmatched on those measures, my stutter would potentially put me at a disadvantage in a debate with Limbaugh, or just about anyone.
I no longer want to debate Limbaugh because I no longer find him interesting. And I think it would have resembled the exchange we saw between Joe Biden and Donald Trump during the first presidential debate, during which substance took a backseat to what some TV commentators rightly deemed a “shit show.”
I don’t know if Trump was just being his usual self and allowed his standard-natural overbearing rudeness to take centerstage because he can’t help himself. But I know what I saw from Biden, a man — like me — still struggling with a lifelong stutter. I can hear it in his sudden stops and restarts, his quickly restructuring sentences on the fly, his use of word substitution — a tactic used by many stutterers when we block on the word we really want to utter.
That’s what I noticed during the debate. It’s hard not to notice his stutter when you are a stutterer who also gives public speeches and lectures. It would not surprise me if Biden had a Mama Elephant Day during the debate. On the toughest days, it feels like a Mama Elephant is sitting on my chest, and I have to expertly move her around with my diaphragm in just the right way in order to produce fluent speech or get out of stuttering blocks. On the easiest days, it feels like a Baby Elephant is on my chest.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story, because on some days nervousness makes it easier to speak while on others nervousness makes it more difficult. It’s the same with standing versus sitting, or standing still versus moving around the stage, or having stage lights in your eyes, or if you’ve spent too much time speaking in the previous days or hours, tiring out your articulators. Never forget that stuttering isn’t a straight line and is shaped by the uniqueness of each stutterer.
Here’s what I really wondered watching that debate: How would journalists have responded had Biden experienced several severe stuttering blocks that were noticeable even to the untrained eye? What if he said “ba ba ba ba ba ba ba ba…” for several seconds before being able to utter a word? What if the quick tightening around his eyes when he got into a stuttering block during the debate was instead full, prolonged facial tics that are commonplace among severe stutterers? What if he felt the need to tap himself on the head with his left index finger in patterns of three or began rocking from his left foot to his right to establish a rhythm to try and break through a stuttering block the way I’ve done?
Would journalists have the ability to deal with something so outside of the norm?
In such situations, journalists should treat the stutter like they should any other factor in the debate. If it had a real effect, say so, then clearly explain why and what it might mean for viewers and voters – only if you really know how it will affect viewers and voters. Don’t speculate.
After I’ve been interviewed recently, I’ve had journalists ask me how I’d like them to deal with my stutter, which was more pronounced in some broadcast interviews than others. I told them precisely what I tell my journalism students, as well as what I do, which is to include or mention it when it’s relevant and ignore it when it’s not. Which is what we do in every other situation.
For instance, in my book from 2018, I used a lot of quotes that included my stutter because it was an important factor in the story. In my most recent book, I didn’t — because it wasn’t.
But journalists won’t be able to tell which is which if they don’t do the hard work of first trying to understand the complexity of a stutter.
On that point, I’ve seen speculation online and elsewhere that Trump may have been purposefully interrupting Biden to “trigger” his stutter. There’s no evidence of such a plan, and Trump has been boorish in all sorts of settings, so what he did during the debate should have surprised no one.
In some cases, interruptions have made it more difficult for me to produce fluent speech, but in others they actually made it easier. It all depends on what it does to my rhythm and how it makes me feel. If it feels as though someone is purposefully interrupting me, it’s more likely to make me angry — and more fluent, not less. That’s how my personality works.
I don’t know how such things affect Biden’s stutter. But I know that given Biden’s standing in state and national polls, journalists better be preparing themselves for the possibility of a president who stutters and what that will mean when he has a Mama Elephant Day while delivering an important speech from the Oval Office during a national crisis.
Can Biden effectively handle such a circumstance is a political question. But can journalists?