Joe Biden's Stutter, and Mine - The Atlantic
Fri, 22 Nov 2019 20:29
H is eyes fall to the floor when I ask him to describe it. We've been tiptoeing toward it for 45 minutes, and so far, every time he seems close, he backs away, or leads us in a new direction. There are competing theories in the press, but Joe Biden has kept mum on the subject. I want to hear him explain it. I ask him to walk me through the night he appeared to lose control of his words onstage.
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''I'--um'--I don't remember,'' Biden says. His voice has that familiar shake, the creak and the croak. ''I'd have to see it. I-I-I don't remember.''
We're in Biden's mostly vacant Washington, D.C., campaign office on an overcast Tuesday at the end of the summer. Since entering the Democratic presidential-primary race in April, Biden has largely avoided in-depth interviews. When I first reached out, in late June, his press person was polite but noncommittal: Was an interview really necessary for the story?
Then came the second debate, at the end of July, in Detroit. The first one, a month earlier, had been a disaster for Biden. He was unprepared when Senator Kamala Harris criticized both his past resistance to federally mandated busing and a recent speech in which he'd waxed fondly about collaborating with segregationist senators. Some of his answers that night had been meandering and difficult to parse, feeding into the narrative that he wasn't just prone to verbal slipups'--he's called himself a ''gaffe machine'''--but that his age was a problem, that he was confused and out of touch.
Detroit was Biden's chance to regain control of the narrative. And then something else happened. The candidates were talking about health care. At first, Biden sounded strong, confident, presidential: ''My plan makes a limit of co-pay to be One. Thousand. Dollars. Because we'--''
He stopped. He pinched his eyes closed. He lifted his hands and thrust them forward, as if trying to pull the missing sound from his mouth. ''We f-f-f-f-furthersupport'--'' He opened his eyes. ''The uh-uh-uh-uh'--'' His chin dipped toward his chest. ''The-uh, the ability to buy into the Obamacare plan.'' Biden also stumbled when trying to say immune system.
Fox News edited these moments into a mini montage. Stifling laughter, the host Steve Hilton narrated: ''As the right words struggled to make that perilous journey from Joe Biden's brain to Joe Biden's mouth, half the time he just seemed to give up with this somewhat tragic and limp admission of defeat.''
Several days later, Biden's team got back in touch with me. One of his aides gingerly asked whether I'd noticed the former vice president stutter during the debate. Of course I had'--I stutter, far worse than Biden. The aide said he was ready to talk about it. Last night, after Biden stumbled multiple times during the Atlanta debate, the topic became even more relevant.
''S o how are you , man?''
Biden is in his usual white button-down and navy suit, a flag pin on the left lapel. Up close, he looks like he's lost weight since leaving office in 2017. His height is commanding, but, as he approaches his 77th birthday, he doesn't fill out his suit jacket like he used to.
I stutter as I begin to ask my first question. ''I've only '... told a few people I'm '... d-doing this piece. Every time I '... describe it, I get '... caught on the w-word-uh stuh-tuh-tuh-tutter.''
''So did I,'' Biden replies. ''It doesn't'''--he interrupts himself'--''can't define who you are.''
Mark PeckmezianMaybe you've heard Biden talk about his boyhood stutter. A non-stutterer might not notice when he appears to get caught on words as an adult, because he usually maneuvers out of those moments quickly and expertly. But on other occasions, like that night in Detroit, Biden's lingering stutter is hard to miss. He stutters'--if slightly'--on several sounds as we sit across from each other in his office. Before addressing the debate specifically, I mention what I've just heard. ''I want to ask you, as, you know, a '... stutterer to, uh, to a '... stutterer. When you were '... talking a couple minutes ago, it, it seemed to '... my ear, my eye '... did you have '... trouble on s? Or on '... m?''
Biden looks down. He pivots to the distant past, telling me that the letter s was hard when he was a kid. ''But, you know, I haven't stuttered in so long that it'shhhhard for me to remember the specific'--'' He pauses. ''What I do remember is the feeling.''
I started stuttering at age 4.
I still struggle to say my own name. When I called the gas company recently, the automated voice apologized for not being able to understand me. This happens a lot, so I try to say ''representative,'' but r's are tough too. When I reach a human, I'm inevitably asked whether we have a poor connection. Busy bartenders will walk away and serve someone else when I take too long to say the name of a beer. Almost every deli guy chuckles as I fail to enunciate my order, despite the fact that I've cut it down to just six words: ''Turkey club, white toast, easy mayo.'' I used to just point at items on the menu.
My head will shake on a really bad stutter. People have casually asked whether I have Parkinson's. I curl my toes inside my shoes or tap my foot as a distraction to help me get out of it, a behavior that I've repeated so often, it's become a tic. Sometimes I shuffle a pen between my hands. When I was little, I used to press my palm against my forehead in an effort to force the missing word out of my brain. Back then, my older brother would imitate this motion and the accompanying sound, a dull whine'--something between a cow and a sheep. A kid at baseball camp, Michael, referred to me as ''Stutter Boy.'' He'd snap his fingers and repeat it as if calling a dog. ''Stutter Boy! Stutter Boy!'' In college, I applied for a job at a coffee shop. I stuttered horribly through the interview, and the owner told me he couldn't hire me, because he wanted his caf(C) to be ''a place where customers feel comfortable.''
Stuttering is a neurological disorder that affects roughly 70 million people, about 3 million of whom live in the United States. It has a strong genetic component: Two-thirds of stutterers have a family member who actively stutters or used to. Biden's uncle on his mother's side'--''Uncle Boo-Boo,'' as he was called'--stuttered his whole life.
In the most basic sense, a stutter is a repetition, prolongation, or block in producing a sound. It typically presents between the ages of 2 and 4, in up to twice as many boys as girls, who also have a higher recovery rate. During the developmental years, some children's stutter will disappear completely without intervention or with speech therapy. The longer someone stutters, however, the lower the chances of a full recovery'--perhaps due to the decreasing plasticity of the brain. Research suggests that no more than a quarter of people who still stutter at 10 will completely rid themselves of the affliction as adults.
''Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what's that word?,'' a nun asked Joe Biden in front of his seventh-grade classmates.The cultural perception of stutterers is that they're fearful, anxious people, or simply dumb, and that stuttering is the result. But it doesn't work like that. Let's say you're in fourth grade and you have to stand up and recite state capitals. You know that Juneau is the capital of Alaska, but you also know that you almost always block on the j sound. You become intensely anxious not because you don't know the answer, but because you do know the answer, and you know you're going to stutter on it.
Stuttering can feel like a series of betrayals. Your body betrays you when it refuses to work in concert with your brain to produce smooth speech. Your brain betrays you when it fails to recall the solutions you practiced after school with a speech therapist, allegedly in private, later learning that your mom was on the other side of a mirror, watching in the dark like a detective. If you're a lucky stutterer, you have friends and family who build you back up, but sometimes your protectors betray you too.
Joe Biden (back) with his brother James and his sister, Valerie, at her First Communion (Random House)A Catholic nun betrayed Biden when he was in seventh grade. ''I think I was No. 5 in alphabetical order,'' Biden says. He points over my right shoulder and stares into the middle distance as the movie rolls in his mind. ''We'd sit along the radiators by the window.''
The office we're in is awash in framed memories: Biden and his family, Biden and Barack Obama, Biden in a denim shirt posing for InStyle. The shelf behind the desk features, among other books, Jon Meacham's The Soul of America. It's a phrase Biden has adopted for his campaign this time around, his third attempt at the presidency. In almost every speech, Biden warns potential voters that 2020 is not merely an election, but a battle ''for the soul of America.'' Sometimes he swaps in nation.
Joe Biden: 'We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation'
But now we're back in middle school. The students are taking turns reading a book, one by one, up and down the rows. ''I could count down how many paragraphs, and I'd memorize it, because I found it easier to memorize than look at the page and read the word. I'd pretend to be reading,'' Biden says. ''You learned early on who the hell the bullies were,'' he tells me later. ''You could tell by the look, couldn't you?''
For most stutterers, reading out loud summons peak dread. A chunk of text that may take a fluent person roughly a minute to read could take a stutterer five or 10 times as long. Four kids away, three kids away. Your shoulders tighten. Two away. The back of your neck catches fire. One away. Then it happens, and the room fills with secondhand embarrassment. Someone breathes a heavy sigh. Someone else laughs. At least one kid mimics your stutter while you're actively stuttering. You never talk about it. At night, you stare at the ceiling above your bed, reliving it.
''The paragraph I had to read was: 'Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentleman. He laid his cloak upon the muddy road suh-suh-so the lady wouldn't soil her shoes when she entered the carriage,'''' Biden tells me, slightly and unintentionally tripping up on the word so. ''And I said, 'Sir Walter Raleigh was a gentle man who'--' and then the nun said, 'Mr. Biden, what is that word?' And it was gentleman that she wanted me to say, not gentle man. And she said, 'Mr. Buh-Buh-Buh-Biden, what's that word?''''
Biden says he rose from his desk and left the classroom in protest, then walked home. The family story is that his mother, Jean, drove him back to school and confronted the nun with the made-for-TV phrase ''You do that again, I'll knock your bonnet off your head!'' I ask Biden what went through his mind as the nun mocked him.
''Anger, rage, humiliation,'' he says. His speech becomes staccato. ''A feeling of, uh'--like I'm sure you've experienced'--it just drops out of your chest, just, like, you feel '... a void.'' He lifts his hands up to his face like he did on the debate stage in July, to guide the v sound out of his mouth: void.
By all accounts, Biden was both popular and a strong athlete in high school. He was class president at Archmere Academy, in Claymont, Delaware. His nickname was ''Dash'''--not a reference to his speed on the football field, but rather another way to mock his stutter. ''It was like Morse code'--dot dot dot, dash dash dash dash,'' Biden says. ''Even though by that time I started to overcome it.''
I ask him to expand on the relationship between anger and humiliation, or shame.
''Shame is a big piece of it,'' he says, then segues into a story about meeting a stutterer while campaigning.
I bring it back up a little later, this time more directly: ''When have you felt shame?''
''Not for a long, long, long time. But especially when I was in grade school and high school. Because that's the time when everything is, you know, it's rough. They talk about 'mean girls'? There's mean boys, too.''
Bill Bowden had the locker next to Biden's at Archmere. I called Bowden recently. ''It was just kind of a funny thing, you know?'' he told me. ''Hopefully he wasn't hurt by it.'' Bob Markel, another high-school buddy of Biden's, went a little further when we spoke: ''''H-H-H-H-Hey, J-J-J-J-J-Joe B-B-B-B-Biden''--that's how he'd be addressed.'' Markel said the Archmere guys called him ''Stutterhead,'' or ''Hey, Stut'!'' for short. He fears that he himself may have made fun of Biden once or twice. ''I never remember him being offended. He probably was,'' Markel said. ''I think one of his coping mechanisms was to not show it.'' Bowden and Markel have remained friends with Biden to this day.
Before collecting from customers on his paper route, Biden would preplay conversations in his mind, banking lines'--a tactic he still sometimes uses on the campaign trail, he says. ''I knew the one guy loved the Phillies. And he'd asked me about them all the time. And I knew another person would ask me about my sister, so I would practice an answer.''
After trying and failing at speech therapy in kindergarten, Biden waged a personal war on his stutter in his bedroom as a young teen. He'd hold a flashlight to his face in front of his bedroom mirror and recite Yeats and Emerson with attention to rhythm, searching for that elusive control. He still knows the lines by heart: ''Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.''
Biden performs the passage for me with total fluency, knowing where and when to pause, knowing how many words he can say before needing a breath. This is what stutterers learn to do: reclaim control of their airflow; think in full phrases, not individual words. I ask Biden what his moment of dread used to be in that essay.
''Well, looking back on it, 'Meek young men grow up in li-li-libraries,'''' he begins again. ''''Li''--the l.''
''That kind of sound, the l sound, is like the '... r sound,'' I say.
''Sometimes I've noticed, watching old clips, it looks like you do have a little trouble on the r. It's your middle initial.''
''Like 'ruh-ruh-ruh-remember,'''' I say, intentionally stuttering on the r.
''Well, I may. I-I-I-I-I haven't thought I have. But I-I-I-I don't doubt there's probably ways people could pick up that there's something. But I don't consciously think of it anymore.''
Biden says he hasn't felt himself caught in a traditional stutter in several decades. ''I mean, I can't remember a time where I've ever worried before a crowd of 80,000 people or 800 people or 80 people'--I haven't had that feeling of dread since, I guess, speech class in college,'' he says, referring to an undergraduate public-speaking course at the University of Delaware.
This is when I ask him what happened that night in Detroit.
After saying he doesn't remember, Biden opines: ''I'm everybody's target; they have to take me down. And so, what I found is'--not anymore'--I've found that it's difficult to deal with some of the criticism, based on the nature of the person directing the criticism. It's awful hard to be, to respond the same way in a national debate'--especially when you're, you know, the guy who is characterized as the white-guy-of-privilege kind of thing'--to turn and say to someone who says, 'I'm not saying you're a racist, but '...' and know you're being set up. So I have to admit to you, I found my mind going, What the hell? How do I respond to that? Because I know she's being completely unfair.''
I eventually realize that he's describing the moment from the first debate, when Harris criticized his record on race.
''These aren't debates,'' he continues. ''These are one-minute assertions. And I don't think there's anybody who hasn't been taking shots at me, which is okay. I'm a big boy, don't get me wrong.''
Listening back to that part of the conversation after our interview made me feel dizzy. I can only speculate as to why Biden's campaign agreed to this interview, but I assume the reasoning went something like this: If Biden disclosed to me, a person who stutters, that he himself still actively stutters, perhaps voters would cut him some slack when it comes to verbal misfires, as well as errors that seem more related to memory and cognition. But whenever I asked Biden about what appeared to be his present-day stuttering, the notably verbose candidate became clipped, or said he didn't remember, or spun off to somewhere new.
I wondered if I reminded Biden of his old self, a ghost from his youth, the stutterer he used to be. He and I are about the same height. We happened to be wearing the exact same outfit that day: navy suit, white shirt, no tie. We both went to all-male prep schools, the sort of place where displaying any weakness is a liability.
As I listened to the recording of our interview, I remembered how I used to respond when people asked me about my stutter. I'd shut down. I'd try to change the subject. I'd almost always look away.
In early September, I got in touch with my high-school speech pathologist, Joseph Donaher, who practices at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. I hadn't heard Donaher's voice for almost 15 years. Immediately, I was transported back to the little windowless room in the hospital where we used to meet. Donaher was the first therapist'--really the first person'--who ever leveled with me. I can still see his face, the neutrality in his eyes on the day he looked at me square and said the sentence my friends and parents had avoided saying my entire life: You have a severe stutter.
Donaher and his colleagues try to help their patients open up about the shame and low self-worth that accompany stuttering. Instead of focusing solely on mechanics, or on the ability to communicate, they first build up the desire to communicate at all. They then share techniques such as elongating vowels and lightly approaching hard-consonant clusters, meaning just touching on the first sound in a word like stutter'--the st'--to keep the mouth and throat from tensing up and interfering with speech. The goal isn't to be totally fluent but, simply put, to stutter better.
This evolution in treatment has been accompanied by a new movement to destigmatize the disorder, similar to the drive to view autism through a lens of ''neurodiversity'' rather than as a pathology. The idea is to accept, even embrace, one's stutter. There are practical reasons for this: Research shows, according to Donaher, that the simple disclosure ''I stutter'' benefits both the stutterer and the listener'--the former gets to explain what's happening and ease the awkward tension so the latter isn't stuck wondering what's ''wrong'' with this person. Saying those two words is harder than it seems. ''I'm working with people who spend their whole lives and are never able to disclose it,'' Donaher told me.
Biden says his father taught him about ''shouldering burdens with grace.'' Specifically, he told his son, ''Never complain. Never explain.''Eric S. Jackson, an assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at NYU, told me he believes that Biden's eye movements'--the blinks, the downward glances'--are part of his ongoing efforts to manage his stutter. ''As kids we figure out: Oh, if I move parts of my body not associated with the speech system, sometimes it helps me get through these blocks faster,'' Jackson, a stutterer himself, explained. Jackson credits an intensive program at the American Institute for Stuttering, in Manhattan, with bringing him back from a ''rock bottom'' period in his mid-20s, when he says his stutter kept him from meeting women or speaking up enough to reach his professional goals. Afterward, Jackson went all in on disclosure: Every day for six months, he stood up during the subway ride to and from work and announced that he was a person who stutters. ''I had this new relationship with my stuttering'--I was like Hercules,'' he told me. At 41, Jackson still stutters, but in conversation he confidently maintains eye contact and appears relaxed. He wishes Biden would be more transparent about his intermittent disfluency. ''Running for president is essentially the biggest stage in the world. For him to come out and say 'I still stutter and it's fine' would be an amazing, empowering message.''
Occasionally, Biden has used present-tense verbs when discussing his stutter. ''I find myself, when I'm tired, cuh-cuh-catching myself, like that,'' he said during a 2016 American Institute for Stuttering speech. Biden has used the phrase we stutterers at times, but in most public appearances and interviews, Biden talks about how he overcame his speech problem, and how he believes others can too. You can watch videos posted by his campaign in which Biden meets young stutterers and encourages them to follow his lead. They're sweet clips, even if the underlying message'--beat it or bust'--is out of sync with the normalization movement.
Emma Alpern is a 32-year-old copy editor who co-leads the Brooklyn chapter of the National Stuttering Association and co-founded NYC Stutters, which puts on a day-long conference for stuttering destigmatization. Alpern told me that she's on a group text with other stutterers who regularly discuss Biden, and that it's been ''frustrating'' to watch the media portray Biden's speech impediment as a sign of mental decline or dishonesty. ''Biden allows that to happen by not naming it for what it is,'' she said, though she's not sure that his presidential candidacy would benefit if he were more forthcoming. ''I think he's dug himself into a hole of not saying that he still stutters for so long that it would strike people as a little weird.''
Biden has presented the same life story for decades. He's that familiar face'--Uncle Joe. He was born 11 months after Pearl Harbor and grew up in the last era of definitive ''good guys'' and ''bad guys.'' He's the dependable guy, the tenacious guy, the aviators-and-crossed-arms guy. That guy doesn't stutter; that guy used to stutter.
''My dad taught me the value of constancy, effort, and work, and he taught me about shouldering burdens with grace,'' Biden writes in the first chapter of his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep. ''He used to quote Benjamin Disraeli: 'Never complain. Never explain.''''
Jill and Joe Biden, shortly after they first met, with his two sons, Beau and Hunter (Steven Goldblatt / Random House) Stephen Colbert launches across the Ed Sullivan Theater stage, as if from a pinball spring. It's early September, and his Late Show taping is about to begin. To warm up, he takes a few questions from the studio audience. Someone asks what he'd want in a potential new president. ''Empathy?'' Colbert deadpans. ''A soul?''
Colbert tapes in Midtown Manhattan on the same stage where the Beatles made their American television debut 55 years ago, when Joe Biden was a mere 22. Biden struts out to a standing ovation and throws up his hands in amazement: For me? A brief ''Joe! Joe! Joe!'' chant erupts.
At first, Colbert lobs softballs, and Biden touches on the key parts of his 2020 stump speech: Why voters must stand up to the existential threat of Trumpism and how the Charlottesville, Virginia, white-supremacist rally crystallized his decision to run. Then Colbert goes for it.
''In the last few weeks, you've confused New Hampshire for Vermont; saidBobby Kennedy and MLK were assassinated in the late '70s; assured us, 'I am not going nuts.' Follow-up question: Are you going nuts?''
''Look, the reason I came on the Jimmy Kimmel show was because'--''
The audience howls. Biden flashes a flirty smile. Colbert adjusts his glasses, sticks his pen in his mouth, and nods in approval. The joke was probably canned, but Biden landed it.
Colbert continues to press him about accuracy issues in his storytelling. The studio audience is silent; I'm watching from the balcony and can hear the theater's air-conditioning humming overhead.
''I-I-I-I-I don't get wrong things like, uh, ya know, there is a, we, we should lock kids up in cages at the border. I mean, I don't'--'' People applaud before Biden can finish.
When the interview is over, Biden receives a second standing ovation. He peers up toward the rafters, using his hand as a visor against the bright lights. A white spotlight follows him offstage. Several minutes later, he glides through the stage door and out onto West 53rd Street. People call to him from the sidewalk. ''Joe! Joe Biden!'' He climbs into the back of an idling black SUV, and the doorsclunk close.
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I follow Biden for a couple of days while he campaigns in New Hampshire. His town halls have a distinctly Norman Rockwell vibe. One takes place in the middle of the day on the third floor of a former textile mill, another on a stretch of grass as the wind whips off the Piscataqua River. His crowds are predominantly older, filled with people who stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and wait patiently to ask questions. After he speaks, Biden typically walks offstage to Bruce Springsteen's ''We Take Care of Our Own,'' then saunters down the rope line for handshakes and hugs and selfies. One voter after another tells me they're unaware of Biden's stutter. ''Knowing that he has had something like that to deal with and overcame it, as well as other really sad things that have happened'--it just makes me like him more,'' says 70-year-old Grace Payne.
Back in New York, I start to wonder if I'm forcing Biden into a box where he doesn't belong. My box. Could I be jealous that his present stutter is less obvious than mine? That he can go sentences at a time without a single block or repetition? Even the way I'm writing this piece'--keeping Biden's stammers, his ums and pauses, on the page'--seems hypocritical. Here I am highlighting the glitches in his speech, when the journalistic courtesy, convention even, is to edit them out.
I spend weeks watching Biden more than listening to him, trying to ''catch him in the act'' of stuttering on camera. There's one. There's one. That was a bad one. Also, I start stuttering more.
In September, before the third Democratic debate, in Houston, I called Michael Sheehan, a Washington, D.C.''area communications coach whose company website boasts clients ranging from Nike to the Treasury Department. Sheehan worked with President Bill Clinton while he was in office and began consulting on and off for Biden in 2002, when he was in the Senate. On the day we spoke, he was in Wilmington, Delaware, doing debate prep with Biden.
Sheehan and I traded stories of daily indignities'--he stutters too. ''I remember exactly where the deli was; it was on 71st and First Avenue,'' he said with an ache in his voice. He lamented the interventionists, the people who volunteer, ''''You know, why don't you speak more slowly?' I always want to say 'Holy shit! Why didn't I think of that? Thank you!''''
Sheehan's own stutter improved, but didn't fully go away, when he took up speech and debate in high school. This eventually led him to the theater, which is a common, if surprising, place where some stutterers find that they're able to speak with relative ease. Taking on a character, another voice, the theory goes, relies on a different neural pathway from the one used in conversation. Many successful actors have battled stutters'--Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, James Earl Jones. In 2014, Jones, whose muscular baritone is the bedrock of one of the most quoted lines in film history, told NPR that he doesn't use the word cured to describe his apparent fluency. ''I just work with it,'' he said.
At an August town hall, Biden briefly blocked on Obama, before subbing in my boss. The headlines afterward? ''Biden Forgets Obama's Name.''Sheehan was extremely careful with the language he used to describe Biden's speech patterns'--''I can't say it's a stutter'''--though he noted his friend's habit of abruptly changing directions mid-sentence. ''I do hear those little pauses, but I really don't hear the stuff that you would hear from me or I would hear from you,'' he said. A few minutes into our conversation, he choked up while discussing Biden's tenderness toward young stutterers. ''Sometimes I feel when he goes a little long on a speech, he's just making up for lost time, you know?''
Sheehan told me about a night when he came home with his wife and saw the answering-machine light blinking: ''Hey, Michael, it's Joe Biden. I just was watching The King's Speech with my granddaughter, and I just thought I'd give you a call, because it made me think of you. Goodbye!'' He says the message felt like a secret fraternity handshake: ''You and I have both been there, and only people in that society know what that is about.''
In Biden's office, the first time I bring up his current stuttering, he asks me whether I've seen The King's Speech. He speaks almost mystically about the award-winning 2010 film. ''When King George VI, when he stood up in 1939, everyone knew he stuttered, and they knew what courage it took for him to stand up at that stadium and try to speak'--and it gave them courage '... I could feel that. It was that sinking feeling, like'--oh my God, I remember how you felt. You feel like, I don't know '... almost like you're being sucked into a black hole.''
Presidential candidates usually don't speak about their bleakest moments, certainly not this viscerally. It resembles the way Biden writes in his memoir about the aftermath of the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and young daughter and critically injured his two sons, Beau and Hunter: ''I could not speak, only felt this hollow core grow in my chest, like I was going to be sucked inside a black hole.''
Related Stories Joe Biden Is Schr¶dinger's Candidate Is Joe Biden 'Too Old'? The President's Cognitive Decline A few weeks later, I ask Jill Biden what she remembers about sitting next to her husband during the movie. ''It was one of those moments in a marriage where you just sort of understand without words being spoken,'' she says.
As he watched The King's Speech, Biden accurately guessed that the screenwriter, David Seidler, was a stutterer. ''He showed me a copy of a speech they found in an attic that the king had actually used, where he marks his'--it's exactly what I do!'' Biden tells me, his voice lifting. ''My staff, when I have them put something on a prompter'--I wish I had something to show you.''
He pulls out a legal pad and begins drawing diagonal lines a few inches apart, as if diagramming invisible sentences: x words, breath, y words, breath. ''Because it's just the way I have'--the, the best way for me to read a, um, a speech. I mean, when I saw The King's Speech, and the speech'--I didn't know anybody who did that!''
Biden is running for president on a simple message: America is not Trump. I'm not Trump. I'll lead us out of this. With every new debate, with every new ''gaffe,'' the media continue to ask whether Biden has the stamina for the job. And with every passing month, his competitors'--namely Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg'--have gained on him in the polls.
A stutter does not get worse as a person ages, but trying to keep it at bay can take immense physical and mental energy. Biden talks all day to audiences both small and large. In addition to periodically stuttering or blocking on certain sounds, he appears to intentionally not stutter by switching to an alternative word'--a technique called ''circumlocution'''--which can yield mangled syntax. I've been following practically everything he's said for months now, and sometimes what is quickly characterized as a memory lapse is indeed a stutter. As Eric Jackson, the speech pathologist, pointed out to me, during a town hall in August Biden briefly blocked on Obama, before quickly subbing in my boss. The headlines after the event? ''Biden Forgets Obama's Name.'' Other times when Biden fudges a detail or loses his train of thought, it seems unrelated to stuttering, like he's just making a mistake. The kind of mistake other candidates make too, though less frequently than he does.
During his 2016 address at the American Institute for Stuttering, Biden told the room that he'd turned down an invitation to speak at a dinner organized by the group years earlier. ''I was afraid if people knew I stuttered,'' he said, ''they would have thought something was wrong with me.''
Yet even when sharing these old, hard stories, Biden regularly characterizes stuttering as ''the best thing that ever happened'' to him. ''Stuttering gave me an insight I don't think I ever would have had into other people's pain,'' he says. I admire his empathy, even if I disagree with his strict adherence to a tidy redemption narrative.
In Biden's office, as my time is about to run out, I bring up the fact that Trump crudely mocked a disabled New York Times reporter during the 2016 campaign. ''So far, he's called you 'Sleepy Joe.' Is 'St-St-St-Stuttering Joe' next?''
''I don't think so,'' Biden says, ''because if you ask the polls 'Does Biden stutter? Has he ever stuttered?,' you'd have 80 to 95 percent of people say no.'' If Trump goes there, Biden adds, ''it'll just expose him for what he is.''
I ask Biden something else we've been circling: whether he worries that people would pity him if they thought he still stuttered.
He scratches his chin, his fingers trembling slightly. ''Well, I guess, um, it's kind of hard to pity a vice president. It's kind of hard to pity a senator who's gotten six zillion awards. It's kind of hard to pity someone who has had, you know, a decent family. I-I-I-I don't think if, now, if someone sits and says, 'Well, you know, the kid, when he was a stutterer, he must have been really basically stupid,' I-I-I don't think it's hard to'--I've never thought of that. I mean, there's nobody in the last, I don't know, 55 years, has ever said anything like that to me.''
He slips back into politician mode, safe mode, Uncle Joe mode: ''I hope what they see is: Be mindful of people who are in situations where their difficulties do not define their character, their intellect. Because that's what I tell stutterers. You can't let it define you.'' He leans across the desk. ''And you haven't.'' He's in my face now. ''You can't let it define you. You're a really bright guy.''
He's telling me, in essence, that my stutter doesn't matter, which is what I want to tell him right back. But here's the thing: Most of the time, Biden speaks smoothly, and perhaps he sincerely does not believe that he still stutters at all. Or maybe Biden is simply telling me the story he's told himself for several decades, the one he's memorized, the one he can comfortably express. I don't want to hear Biden say ''I still stutter'' to prove some grand point; I want to hear him say it because doing so as a presidential candidate would mean that stuttering truly doesn't matter'--for him, for me, or for our 10-year-old selves.
Now his aide is knocking, trying to get him out of the room. I push out one more question, asking what he saw reflected in that bedroom mirror as a kid.
He goes off into a different boyhood story about standing against a stone wall and talking with pebbles in his mouth, some oddball way to MacGyver fluency. I do the thing stutterers hate most: I cut him off. ''What did that person look like?''
Biden stops. ''He looked happy,'' he says. ''You know, I just think it looked like he'sin control.''
This article will appear in the January/February 2020 print edition with the headline ''Why Won't He Just Say It?''
John Hendrickson is a senior editor on
The Atlantic's politics team.
How a Facebook Employee Helped Trump Win'--But Switched Sides for 2020 - WSJ
Sat, 23 Nov 2019 15:51
After the 2016 presidential election, Republican Party officials credited Facebook Inc. with helping Donald Trump win the White House. One senior official singled out a then-28-year-old Facebook employee embedded with the Trump campaign, calling him an ''MVP.''
Now that key player is working for the other side'--as national debate intensifies over Facebook's role in politics.
James Barnes left Facebook this spring, and said he is now dedicated to using the digital-ad strategies he employed on behalf of the Trump campaign to get President Trump out of office in 2020. Mr. Barnes, who had been a lifelong Republican, has registered as a Democrat and recently started working with a progressive nonprofit called Acronym, where former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe is on the board.
In a series of interviews over the past three weeks, Mr. Barnes discussed how he helped the Trump campaign leverage some of Facebook's powerful tools and products to extend its reach. He talked about the pressure he felt behind the scenes, both from the Trump campaign and some colleagues at Facebook. His account sheds new light on Facebook's role in the Trump campaign and what Democrats are trying to learn from it going into the next presidential election.
Mr. Barnes said he remains supportive of Facebook's mission but is uneasy about the company's influence on political discourse. One question that has nagged him over the past three years about his time at Facebook: ''Did I actually do the right thing?''
Social-media platforms are sure to be a critical battlefield in 2020, with political spending on digital advertising expected to hit $2.9 billion, up from $1.4 billion in 2016, according to consulting firm Borrell Associates Inc. The Trump re-election campaign is already pouring money into Facebook ads, and Democratic candidates are ramping up.
Facebook has openly grappled with its approach to political advertising in the wake of revelations that Russian entities purchased digital ads designed to influence the results of the 2016 presidential election. It has also faced criticism for giving political campaigns access to sophisticated targeting tools, which in some cases allowed political actors to single out groups of users for misleading ads. In response, Facebook has made changes to slow the spread of misinformation and eliminated commissions for employees who sell political ads. The company is also considering ways to make it harder to target political ads to very small groups of people.
Another big change that came out of this reckoning: Last year, Facebook said it would no longer embed its employees with political campaigns, as Mr. Barnes had done.
Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has discussed his own soul-searching around whether Facebook should accept political ads at all, eventually deciding that it should and that it wouldn't fact-check those messages as it does other content.
Facebook has played an increasingly large role in each of the last three U.S. presidential elections. In 2008, Barack Obama's campaign was lauded for using Facebook to help reach young voters. In 2012, President Obama's re-election campaign created an app that plugged into the Facebook developer platform and allowed users to prod friends in swing states to vote.
The company's political ad strategy was initially modeled on its playbook for top corporate clients: Facebook employees offered on-site support to the U.S. presidential candidates who were considered the presumptive nominees for their parties.
Mr. Barnes joined Facebook's political ad sales team in June 2013 in Washington, following a stint at a digital consulting firm that worked for John McCain's two presidential campaigns.
Like other tech companies, Facebook divvies up its political ad sales team by party. Republican employees usually work with Republican clients; Democrats work with Democrats. Mr. Barnes was part of the team that exclusively dealt with Republicans.
In many ways, Mr. Barnes is the archetype of a Silicon Valley tech worker. He's analytical and measured. He's earnest and idealistic, describing on multiple occasions his desire to do good in the world. He fasts intermittently, sometimes going 72 hours between meals.
In other ways, he cuts against type. He grew up in Hendersonville, Tenn., in an evangelical family that attended church on Wednesday nights. His mother, Tami West, says he was an Alex P. Keaton type: independent and staunchly Republican.
By the time the 2016 campaign was heating up, the developer platform used by the Obama campaign was mostly closed off, as part of a shift in Facebook's strategy, but Facebook's ad-targeting tools had grown more sophisticated.
Mr. Barnes became the Trump campaign's go-to resource for figuring out how to maximize those tools. In April 2016, after a weekend at the Coachella music festival in California, he and his manager flew to San Antonio to meet with Brad Parscale, who became the digital director of the Trump campaign. In Mr. Parscale's office, and later at Bohanan's, a local steak house, they discussed how Facebook could help the campaign.
One of the first things Mr. Barnes and his team advised campaign officials to do was to start running fundraising ads targeting Facebook users who liked or commented on Mr. Trump's posts over the past month using a product now called ''engagement custom audiences.''
The product, which Mr. Barnes hand-coded, was available to a small group, including Republican and Democratic political clients. (The ad tool was rolled out widely around Election Day.) Within the first few days, every dollar that the Trump campaign spent on these ads yielded $2 to $3 in fundraising dollars, said Mr. Barnes, who added that the campaign raised millions of dollars in those first few days.
Mr. Barnes frequently flew to Texas, sometimes staying for four days at a time and logging 12-hour days. By July, he says, he was solely focused on the Trump campaign. When on-site in the building that served as the Trump campaign's digital headquarters in San Antonio, he sometimes sat a few feet from Mr. Parscale.
The intense pace reflected Trump officials' full-throated embrace of Facebook's platform, in the absence of a more traditional campaign structure including donor files and massive email databases.
The Trump campaign would give Mr. Barnes certain videos or images, such as a video of Donald Trump Jr. urging voters to build the border wall. Mr. Barnes would experiment with different ways to display the ad. One ad might say ''donate'' while another would say ''give.'' Some videos would be vertical; others were square. Buttons could be highlighted in red or green.
Each variation of the ad would be targeted to certain demographics. It could be as specific as 18-to-24 year old men who visited the Trump campaign donation page and made it to the third step but never finished, according to Mr. Barnes. They tested all the variations and doubled down on those that raised the most money.
Trump campaign officials have said that some days the campaign churned out 100,000 separate versions of Facebook ads. Mr. Parscale is overseeing the Trump re-election campaign this year.
One official from the 2016 Trump campaign said it primarily relied on Mr. Barnes for troubleshooting and complained to Facebook about periodic technical issues that the campaign argued hurt the campaign's performance. The official, who is also working on Mr. Trump's re-election campaign, declined to comment further.
Mr. Barnes's Democratic counterparts at Facebook weren't getting the same reception. Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook employee who worked with Democratic PACs and other independent expenditure groups in 2016, said she felt many Democrats held Facebook at arm's length.
''For James, he'd suggest something and they'd say, 'Sure, let's try it,' '' said Ms. Musapatike. ''It was a battle for us to get anything accepted at a much smaller scale.''
Hillary Clinton's campaign didn't have Facebook employees stationed on site, according to people familiar with the campaign. One former Clinton campaign official said the campaign didn't want to give Facebook staffers a ''24/7 opportunity'' to sell more ads by embedding with the staff. A spokesman for Mrs. Clinton didn't respond to a request for comment.
Facebook referred to its prior comments on the embed program. Last year, Facebook told lawmakers that it didn't assign anybody ''full-time'' to either campaign and that it offered ''identical support'' to both sides.
Mr. Barnes said the experience was exhilarating but isolating. He was thrilled that the tools he helped build were working. But while he had a good relationship with Mr. Parscale and the campaign's digital advertising director, Gary Coby, at times Mr. Barnes had reservations about Mr. Trump's tone and rhetoric.
Still, Mr. Barnes said he felt he had a responsibility to help Facebook follow through on its commitment to help candidates regardless of their politics.
''I used to describe my job as defending Trump to Facebook and defending Facebook to Trump,'' he said.
Internally, Facebook staffers questioned the company's role in politics. Sometimes they would ask why Facebook was offering assistance to the Trump campaign in the first place, according to Mr. Barnes and other former Facebook employees.
The critiques wore on Mr. Barnes. ''It felt really isolating and lonely that I was at the nexus of all of this stuff,'' he said.
During the campaign, Trump campaign officials frequently threatened to go to the press if Mr. Barnes and other Facebook employees failed to address problems to their satisfaction, he said.
For example, the Trump campaign needed a large credit line from Facebook, according to Mr. Barnes and others familiar with the situation. This issue posed unique challenges. Facebook sometimes extends credit to a select group of digital agencies, but Mr. Parscale's outfit didn't qualify for a large line because it didn't have a track record with Facebook, according to people familiar with the matter. The Trump team also wanted to pay for ads with a credit card, but Facebook's payments system wasn't set up to handle payments of as much as $300,000 to $400,000 a day on a credit card, according to Mr. Barnes and others familiar with the matter.
As employees looked for ways to mend the problem, Mr. Parscale texted Mr. Barnes to say Mr. Trump would go on TV and ''say Facebook was being unfair to him'' if the issue wasn't resolved quickly, Mr. Barnes said. Eventually, Facebook came up with a fix.
Mr. Barnes said he felt responsible for protecting Facebook from these potential attacks.
Mr. Barnes said he ultimately voted for Mrs. Clinton. Ms. Musapatike said Mr. Barnes was in a funk after the election. ''He had a difficult time reckoning with the impact of the election and his work,'' she said.
A few days after the election, Mr. Coby directly praised Mr. Barnes on Twitter. In a now-deleted tweet, he said ''@jameslbarnes of FB was a MVP.''
Being called out by name at a time when Trump supporters were being targeted by threats online was ''terrifying,'' Mr. Barnes said. Facebook's security team called him with instructions on how he could protect himself and his privacy online.
Months later Mr. Barnes moved to San Francisco, joining a team that helped retailers like Macy's use Facebook's products. He tried to forget politics.
In December 2017, Mr. Barnes said, he was interviewed for nine hours by investigators for special counsel Robert Mueller. At one point they asked him if he noticed any Russians hanging around the campaign, he said. ''You wanna make a joke in that scenario,'' he said, but ''it's not the opportunity to make a joke.'' He told them he didn't see Russians.
Mr. Barnes said he also spoke to the Securities and Exchange Commission about the company's connection to Cambridge Analytica, which purchased data of about 87 million users of Facebook from a researcher without the consent of Facebook or the users.
Mr. Barnes doesn't think Cambridge Analytica uploaded any illicitly gained Facebook user data to target ads, but that it wasn't the norm for Facebook employees to ask for such details. Former Cambridge Analytica officials have denied using the data for the 2016 election. The SEC declined to comment.
At one point, in mid-2018, Mr. Barnes helped design Facebook's much-touted war room for managing election integrity in the U.S. and abroad. Shortly before a press junket to showcase the effort, he said, two Facebook public-relations officials advised him to stay away from the event in case journalists raised questions about his role helping the Trump campaign.
That week, as he sat at his desk surrounded by empty seats, his frustration reached a breaking point. ''[I'm thinking], when am I going to stop paying the price for this?''
In early 2019, Mr. Barnes took advantage of a Facebook perk called ''recharge'' which gives employees 30 days off after they have been at Facebook for five years.
He considered going back to Facebook, but opted to take an active role opposing Mr. Trump's re-election. In a private Facebook post on Aug. 5, he wrote that Mr. Trump's slogan, Make America Great Again, was about ''activating the deepest, darkest, soul of white nationalism.''
One of his calls was to former colleague Ms. Musapatike, who left in March to join Acronym as its senior director of campaigns overseeing the group's online voter registration and mobilization programs. Chris Cox, Facebook's former chief product officer, is now an informal adviser to Acronym and, people familiar with the matter say, one of its donors.
Ms. Musapatike warned Mr. Barnes that he might be viewed with suspicion at Acronym because of his work for Mr. Trump. She vouched for Mr. Barnes with Tara McGowan, the founder and chief executive of Acronym.
Mr. Barnes decided he liked Acronym's goal to beat Mr. Trump at his own game, online and on Facebook. This month, Acronym and its affiliated PAC announced plans to spend $75 million on digital ads. Mr. Barnes oversees Acronym's analytics, helping Acronym understand if its ads work.
Mr. Plouffe believes the former Facebook employee gives Democrats a secret weapon as part of a revamped effort to meet Mr. Trump on the social-media battlefield.
''He understands the most dominant platform in politics exceedingly well,'' Mr. Plouffe said of Mr. Barnes. ''He thinks differently from someone who grew up in politics a decade or more ago.''
'--Jim Oberman and Emily Glazer contributed to this article.
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com
Leading white Democrats court black votes; some find trouble
Fri, 22 Nov 2019 12:20
ATLANTA (AP) '-- Coming out of their debate in a key center of black America, the leading Democratic presidential contenders aimed for the party's crucial black and minority vote, with the scramble putting internal party tensions on display.
Full Coverage: Election 2020From black protesters disrupting Elizabeth Warren to the lone black woman in the race chiding white, upstart Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the dynamics in Atlanta highlighted the push for crucial black and other minority support with less than three months before primary voting begins. They further underscored some candidates' vulnerabilities in trying to assemble the coalition necessary to win the nomination '-- and defeat President Donald Trump in the general election.
Warren electrified a raucous and racially diverse crowd in the Clark-Atlanta University gymnasium as she tries to expand her support beyond the white liberal base that boosted her in the primary polls this summer. But the Massachusetts senator had to endure protests of a black school-choice group that threatened to overshadow her message aimed squarely at black women '-- Democrats' most loyal faction.
Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who leads caucus polls in overwhelmingly white Iowa, spent the day defending remarks relating his experience as a gay man to the systemic racism facing African Americans. Kamala Harris, the California senator and only black woman in the race, blasted his approach as ''naive.''
Like Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders invoked his biography, as the child of an immigrant family with casualties in the Holocaust, to connect with African Americans' struggle against oppression and white supremacy. Harris, still lagging the front-runners, has not criticized the way Sanders talks about race, but the Vermont senator still must prove he can get more black votes than he did in losing the 2016 nominating fight.
All those contenders are trying to catch Vice President Joe Biden, whose considerable lead among black voters leaves him atop most national polls. Biden spent Thursday meeting with black Southern mayors, led by Atlanta's Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of his top campaign surrogates. But it wasn't all smooth for Biden, as immigration activists interrupted him in South Carolina demanding he pledge to halt deportations on his first day in office. Biden refused.
For those chasing Biden, Warren offered perhaps the strongest display Thursday.
Before an energetic crowd at Clark-Atlanta, the senator called for a ''full-blown national conversation about reparations'' for slavery, and she praised black women for helping build the country and advancing social and economic justice. She bemoaned structural impediments beyond slavery, naming Jim Crow segregation, modern-day mass incarceration and red-lining practices that make it harder for minorities to get mortgage loans.
''Black history is American history,'' Warren said. ''And American history teaches us that racism has for generations shaped every crucial aspect of our economic and political system.''
She offered a litany of policy proposals: new spending at historically black schools, legalizing marijuana, overhauling federal housing policy, student loan debt forgiveness, even repealing the 1994 crime law '-- which Biden sponsored as a Delaware senator.
''I am not afraid,'' she said to roars. ''And you cannot be afraid, either.''
Yet for a time, it looked as if Warren might not be able to deliver the rare formal speech that aides had built up as a seminal moment in her campaign. Moments into her address, dozens of black protesters from a school-choice group interrupted. They stood down only after Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley took the microphone from Warren.
''The senator is here to talk about fighters like you,'' said Pressley, who is black. In drowning out Warren, she said, the group was keeping the senator from telling the story of black women already marginalized.
Buttigieg, meanwhile, found no such defender as he enjoys a newfound lead in Iowa, the first-caucus state, but shows negligible black support in more diverse primary states that follow. So, he was left to contend with Harris alone.
Their flap spun off the mayor saying Wednesday during a debate segment on race that he has ''felt like a stranger'' in his own country because his civil rights as a gay man were left to the whims of politicians.
During a post-debate event, Harris lambasted Buttigieg for comparing the struggles of black and LGBTQ communities. A Democrat who wants a winning coalition, she said, ''should not be ... saying one group's pain is equal than or greater'' than another's.
Buttigieg pushed back, telling reporters, ''There's no equating those two experiences,'' and maintaining that he hadn't done so.
Sanders understands as well as any candidate that Democratic presidential politics demands more than just enthusiastic white support. The Vermont senator battled Hillary Clinton to a surprise draw in Iowa in 2016 and trounced her in New Hampshire, another mostly white Democratic electorate. Yet with overwhelming black support, Clinton then dominated Sanders in South Carolina and across the Deep South, building an early delegate lead she never relinquished.
This time, he's intent on building black support earlier in the campaign, and on Thursday, he noticeably leaned more on biographical details than he did for much of his 2016 campaign, even as he ticked through his usual list of progressive policy remedies.
Now 78, he told the crowd '-- gathered around a statue of Morehouse alumnus Martin Luther King Jr. '-- of his 1960s activism, describing himself and his fellow white students as ''not quite so brave'' as black citizens in the more dangerous Jim Crow South. But, Sanders said, ''I was arrested and went to jail fighting housing segregation in Chicago.''
And he wanted them to know his family history.
''Some of you know, I'm Jewish,'' Sanders said. ''My father came to this country from Poland. He came fleeing anti-Semitism. A lot of people in my father's family did not make it out of Poland.
''They were murdered by the father of white supremacy, Adolf Hitler,'' Sanders continued. ''So, I learned at a very young age what racism and white supremacy and Aryanism and all that crap is about.''
Far from the campaign trail, former President Barack Obama offered advice to Democrats considering those varied approaches. The first black president, speaking at a party fundraiser in California, warned against absolute judgments as candidates navigate a fraught issue.
''There's a way of talking about race that says 'we can be better,' and there's a way of talking about race that says 'you are bad' or that 'you don't get it,''' he said, later adding, ''When we invite people to their better selves, we tend to bring people in.''
Ronayne reported from Sacramento, Calif. Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and Meg Kinnard in Greenwood, S.C., contributed to this report.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, ''Ground Game.''