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The President’s Speech – WSJ


At his first press conference and at last week’s address to Congress, I noticed (most didn’t) that President Biden experienced a few blockages, or disfluencies in his speech. In other words, he stuttered. I’m writing this not out of malice, but with enormous respect. I know because I have sons who stutter. I found out my wife had stuttered during a call telling her mother she was pregnant. Yes, it’s genetic—and life-changing.

Mr. Biden has said, “You know, stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about. That still humiliate people about. And they don’t even mean to.” My G-g-generation. Th-th-that’s all folks.

As a listener, you learn to be patient. We hired speech therapists. None were effective. Then we heard about an in-ear device that delays incoming sounds and shifts their frequency, providing voice feedback to trick your brain not to stutter. We eagerly met a representative who fitted a prototype in my then-fifth-grade son’s ear, fiddled with some settings and asked my son to speak. No stuttering! Amazing. Excited, we ordered a custom-fit version immediately. We hassled our son to wear it at home and at school, but sadly it never worked. He would complain that it sounded like his younger brother whining in his ear all day. Fair enough; his brother is annoying. Eventually someone “accidentally” stepped on it.

A few years later, on a trip to Moscow, we heard about scientists who had PC-based software that trains stutterers to speak without blocking. We visited them in a blocky Soviet-era housing complex. They had my son put on headphones and speak into a microphone. We left the room as the training started. After maybe 20 minutes, they had us come back in. My son took off the headphones and spoke without a single blockage. Amazing. We scrambled to several ATMs to get cash to pay for the software. Back home, we’d have my son train with it for an hour a day. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.

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As a parent, you’ll try anything. We attended seminars and conferences. One conference brought a group of inner-city teenagers with stutters of varying severity to put on a play. My son took to them immediately and hung around with them all weekend. It was very emotional to watch the group perform. Afterward, I spoke to a group of these teenagers and complimented them on their performances. One turned to me and, with many blockages, explained how they had practiced, and then said, without stuttering, “Actually, it feels like I’m on a stage every day of my life.”

I was surprised to learn of many famous actors whose style may have come from their disfluencies.

Marilyn Monroe

stuttered, hence her breathy voice.

James Earl Jones

—Darth Vader himself—went into acting to help with his stuttering. He developed his singsong voice to avoid blockages.

Samuel L. Jackson

has his distinctive style.

Bruce Willis

said, “A big part of my sense of humor came out of my stuttering.” Yippee Ki-Yay. Rowan “Mr. Bean” Atkinson admitted, “When I play a character other than myself, the stammering disappears. That may have been some of the inspiration for pursuing the career I did.”

Carly Simon

suggests stutterers “can’t stammer when they sing.” Maybe that explains

Elvis Presley.

And

Kendrick Lamar.

And I’m only scratching the surface:

Denzel Washington,

Emily Blunt,

Harvey Keitel,

Nicole Kidman,

Channing Tatum,

Adam Sandler.

Heisman Trophy winners

Bo Jackson

and

Herschel Walker

both stuttered. Mr. Walker even got picked on as a kid. He read books out loud to improve and did 5,000 push-ups and sit-ups daily. I’d bet the bullying stopped. Basketball All-Star Shaquille O’Neal stuttered and said when he encountered blockages—you can see this on NBA broadcasts—he would sometimes stop speaking and just smile.

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Winston Churchill

would practice his speeches, pacing back and forth in his room, until he could give them without disfluency. And King

George VI,

movingly captured in the movie “The King’s Speech,” helped provide national confidence with his 1939 “in this grave hour” radio address. Many leaders stuttered:

General Electric’s

Jack Welch,

Citicorp’s Walter Wriston, heck, even Moses (Exodus 4:10-13).

By the way, my son is now a lawyer and still has blockages, though oddly he doesn’t stutter when yelling at the TV at Duke’s basketball opponents for flopping. Stuttering isn’t cancer, but there doesn’t seem to be a cure except perseverance.

I often disagree with Mr. Biden’s policies, but I greatly respect his personal strength. I think he should hold more press conferences. When the president pauses or changes his word flow, it probably isn’t dementia; he’s working to find a word he won’t block. Cut him some slack. Remember, stutterers are on stage every day of their lives. Be patient.

Write to kessler@wsj.com.

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