Biden’s Stutter: How a Childhood Battle Shaped His Approach to Life & Politics

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September 22, 2020

For the young Joe Biden, few things were as daunting as speaking in front of his class.

A student at Catholic school, Biden struggled with a stutter — a speech condition that, at the time, was often regarded as a sign of low intelligence.

The mockery was sometimes fierce, including from a nun who was his teacher.

In the above clip from FRONTLINE’s Sept. 22 documentary, The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden (which is now streaming in full online), Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, describes what happened after a teacher called her brother “Mr. Buh-buh-buh Biden” as he recited an assignment in class.

Their mother, she says, marched Biden back to school and confronted his teacher head-on: “‘Sister, did you make fun of my son? … if you ever, ever, ever do that again, I’m going to come back and I’m going to knock your bonnet right off your head. Do we understand each other?’”

The bullying Biden endured on account of his stuttering would prove to be formative.

“I was surprised at how often this subject came up during my time with him,” says Jeanne Marie Laskas, a journalist who profiled the former vice president for GQ, of his stutter. “It helped me understand that so much of who he is comes back to that — that people are ready to make fun of him. That people will laugh.”

Equally formative would be Biden’s efforts to manage his stutter. Determined to overcome it, Biden took action in a way that would define his approach to life and politics: Just keep pushing. If you fail, try again. Work hard. Persevere.

“Biden would stand in front of his bedroom mirror holding a flashlight to his face and he would recite Yeats and Emerson,” says John Hendrickson, a senior editor for The Atlantic who has profiled Biden and who stutters himself, describing a method Biden used to bring his stutter under control and gain confidence.

Biden’s pushing would pay off. Eventually, the boy who had been bullied at school became president of his senior class.

“Many people would say Biden’s stutter is among his most visible weaknesses, if not number one,” Hendrickson says. “But it’s also a source of his strength. It’s also the main source of his grit and his determination, to just be there competing.”

Since 1988, FRONTLINE’s election-year series The Choice has brought viewers in-depth, interwoven biographies of the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates. This year’s installment, The Choice 2020: Trump vs. Biden, examines how both men have responded to crises throughout their lives. The documentary premiered Tues., Sept. 22 on PBS and is now streaming online:

In tandem with the premiere, FRONTLINE is publishing the transcripts of 47 original interviews conducted by filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, as well as 13 interviews from their archive, as part of the ongoing Transparency Project. You can also listen to extended audio interviews with six sources, plus Kirk, on the FRONTLINE Dispatch podcast.

This story was updated to include embeds and links to the full documentary once it became available, as well as links to extended interviews.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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