About Biden’s Gaffes

A new article puts Joe Biden's gaffes and malapropisms in a new light.

Since the beginning of the Presidential campaign, and even pre-dating that and going back further in his political career, Joe Biden has always taken heat for his seeming gaffes and verbal malapropisms. The most recent of those came in Wednesday night’s debate when, in reference to the recent endorsement by former Illinois Senator Carol Mosely Braun, he at first stated that she was the only African-American woman elected to the Senate even as Kamala Harris was on the stage with him. Biden corrected himself on the matter quickly, but that gaffe and others remain out there in the public record and they have contributed to speculation by some that Biden may not be up for the rigors of a General Election run against the likes of Donald Trump.

Now, John Hendrickson is out with a piece in The Atlantic that puts all of those malapropisms in a different light:

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.

“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 BidenHe 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-further
support—” 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.”


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.”

Maybe 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’s hhhhard for me to remember the specific—” He pauses. “What I do remember is the feeling.”

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.

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.

The author of the piece, as you may have guessed is a stutterer himself, something that obviously doesn’t show up on the printed page and likely explains why he ultimately became a writer. In that respect, there was probably nobody more appropriate to write this piece, which is likely to come to news as most Americans. Indeed, as someone who has follow politics for decades, and for whom Joe Biden has been a presence since at least the days of his Presidential campaign of 1988, the Iran/Contra and Anita Hill hearings, and, of course, his eight years as Barack Obama’s Vice-President I can honestly say I never knew about his struggles with stuttering as a young child. Obviously, he was able to overcome that burden to a large degree, but Hendrickson suggests that much of what we perceive to be gaffes on Biden’s part strike him as being a reflection of that young child under the glare of the nun who mocked him.

Biden wouldn’t be the first American politician with a stutter. Thomas Jefferson suffered from the problem for most of his life, as has modern celebrities and singers such as James Earl Jones, Marilyn Monroe, and many others, For some who entered the acting or singing fields, the ability to stick to a script or the lyrics to a song allowed them to control the stutter while performing. So Biden would not be alone.

In the interview, Biden doesn’t explicitly acknowledge that he steal finds himself dealing with a stutter at times, but that doesn’t mean that this might, at least in part, be an explanation for what some are claiming is evidence of questions about Biden’s mental acuity. It is also apparent that Biden is a proud man, deservedly so in many respects, and he may be reluctant to admit that he still falls victim to something that young Joe Biden did. At the very least, it’s food for thought.

As the old bloggers saying goes, read the whole thing.

Update: Here is the author of the piece speaking about his interview with Biden on MSNBC with Stephanie Ruhle:

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jay L Gischer says:

    It’s stuff like this that makes me very wary of mocking people.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    read the whole thing.

    Indeed. I forget who directed me to it but I read it this AM. Well worth the time spent. I have a friend who is a stutterer and it is a subject we just don’t discuss. The article enlightened me to several aspects of it.

  3. The author of the piece was on MSNBC this morning with Stephanie Ruhle. His struggles with his own stutter were obvious and it took courage for him to even go on television, which he admits he rarely does.

    I’ll post the video of the interview if it becomes available online

  4. Okay, the video of the interview is up.

    I’ve embedded it as part of an update.

  5. Jen says:

    One of my ex-boyfriends had a stutter. When I first met him, I thought he was incredibly arrogant, he’d take these long pauses before answering questions about politics. With those long pauses, it felt like “hm, how can I explain this clearly enough for these people”-type vibe.

    It turns out that in most settings, he mentally had to review what he wanted to say before he said it in order to avoid words he knew or thought might be problematic for him. To this day, the effort that must take is astonishing to me.

  6. de stijl says:

    I’ve worked with two stutterers. Both were exceptionally good at their jobs.

    One was a brilliant (full on genius SQL person and data analyst/data modeler). He was also a totally arrogant POS. Zero people skills unless you consider condescension and dismissiveness skills – he was aces on those. I was really good at the technical skills he excelled at; he was way better – I learned a lot from him. Technically, he was the best person I’ve ever worked with. Personally, he was a massive tool.

    The other was a super competent people manager and department manager peer. He was in no way brilliant, but was an all-rounder. Everyone who worked for him loved working for him. Everyone at our level loved working with him because he always trustworthy, communicative, and just a mensch. (Plus, he had a super awesome last name.)

    In no way did stuttering enter into anything. It just was.

    One of the good things about large corporations is this sort of thing is deemed to be extremely bad behavior to bring up.

    I also once managed a woman with Tourette’s.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    Aw, geez, I hate when I have to be compassionate.

  8. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Chin up! You can always just ignore the stutter, and still hate the person for valid reasons.

    Misanthropy can survive inclusion.