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'The only handicap that people still laugh about'

Over the weekend I was reminded that the first of three presidential debates was slated for Tuesday. I paused, feeling a familiar concern. I had just watched MSNBC journalist Stephanie Rule interview Joe Biden. As always, when I listen to Biden responding at length to questions from the press, I find that I literally hold my breath while he makes his way through layers of sentences.

I realize that it isn’t the content expressed by Biden that concerns me; rather, it’s sensing that he is dealing with a lifelong issue: he stutters. And so I worry that as he is forming a response he will hit a word that is resistant to being uttered and will, in a fraction of a second, have to make a detour of sorts, searching for a new way to say the same thing. I think of it as a workaround, and in that moment I can only hope that those watching will not interpret this brief hesitation and reconstruction as a lack of preparation or understanding. It’s neither.

There’s much more to say about Joe and stuttering so I’d like to rely on a recent op ed in the NYT, written by Timothy Egan who framed Joe’s stutter as his humanizing “superpower and the source of his empathy.” Indeed. It’s Biden’s struggle with stuttering which has allowed him, in his words, “to developed an insight I don’t think I ever would have had into other people’s pain.” As a boy, he was subjected to the cruel taunts of his peers: “H-H-H-Hey, J-J-J-Joe, B-B-B-Biden.” He often stood before a mirror reciting Yeats, trying to master and control his sentence-fragmenting affliction. He later developed, as Egan points out, a “life-motivating chip on his shoulder against men like Trump.”

Egan goes on to describe the president as “the world’s most powerful bully, a gutter-dwelling man allergic to decency.” And if past is prologue, Trump will again belittle his opponent for what Biden calls “the only handicap people still laugh about.”

Recall Trump, during his 2016 campaign, standing at a rally podium flopping his arms and slurring his speech, mocking NYT’s reporter Serge Kovaleski who suffers from a congenital condition (Athrogryposis) that affects and limits his movements. It was an awful display, deeply revealing regarding Trump the man and must have brought to mind for countless individuals with disabilities those agonizing moments faced daily, large and small, in their own lives.

But that demonstration of inhumanity was not a one-off. Trump, as Egan says, is a “horrible human being.” He has fat-shamed women and laughed about assaulting them, ignored the sick, golfed while Americans waited in food bank lines, insulted and demeaned those who sacrificed their lives and now forever rest beneath white crosses on foreign soil.

Demonstrating his smallness and mean-spirited reflexes, Trump has attacked Biden’s stutter, suggesting that he is angry “because that’s what happens when you can’t get the word out.” It’s a reprehensible thing to say. But Trump has also attempted to use Biden’s word-lock cadence against him, characterizing his uncertain syntax as gaffes. And, as Egan points out, when Biden delivers a series of “crisp, tight, moving speeches,” as he did recently, Trump, absent any evidence, alleges that he is taking performance-enhancing drugs: “They give him a big, fat shot and he comes out and for two hours he’s better than ever.”

This from the man who refers to 9/11 as “7-Eleven,” called Thailand “Thighland,” identified a national park as “Yo-semite,” and with the coronavirus death toll above 200,000, said that the virus “affects virtually nobody.” A stunning non sequitur of disinformation.

As Egan concluded, America faces a choice on Nov. 3 “between an authentic man grasping for words or a preening fraud.” May we choose wisely.

Chris Honoré is an Ashland Tidings columnist.

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