Sanders backers mock, attack Biden over his speech impediment

Remember when Donald Trump mocked a reporter over his disability, arthrogryposis, a congenital condition affecting the joints? A 2016 poll of likely voters picked that slight over the hundreds of others committed by Trump as his worst of that campaign.

Enter supporters of Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders. If you are on Facebook or Twitter, you have likely come across some Internet quacks who claim the speaking gaffes committed by Democratic presidential front runner Joe Biden are due to dementia and cognitive decline. Some essentially say Biden is mentally challenged and joke about “Dementia Joe.”

None of those people who diagnose Biden from afar based on selective videos are physicians or psychiatrists, except for former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, whose ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin have come under questions to the point Hillary Clinton accused her of being a Russian asset. Forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee, who edited a book that detailed Trump’s alleged mental decline, addressed the issue by stating that “Joe Biden does not nearly meet my threshold for signs of dangerous mental instability.” She added that she only “speak[s] up when there is a medical need of such great magnitude as to risk the survival of the human species. This is definitively Donald Trump, not Biden.”

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Backers of Bernie Sanders are mocking and attacking Joe Biden, above, over his speech impediment. [Creative Commons photo]

The dementia claims are the kinds of attacks expected from Trump and his supporters, such as Ann Coulter, who accuses the media of covering up Biden’s supposed “senile dementia.” Never mind that Trump makes more speaking gaffes than Biden, something I don’t criticize Trump for because, to me, gaffes are insignificant and there are far more important issues on which to hold him accountable. What a candidate does is more important than whether he or she sometimes has confusing, incoherent moments in speaking. However, racist remarks and bullying, immature threats are other matters.

As those who share Biden’s lifelong stutter affliction can attest, his gaffes can be largely attributed to trying not to say words that he has a harder time blurting out. Writing in The Atlantic, John Hendrickson notes how difficult it is to control a stutter, even for people who have largely overcome it. The tactic of substituting words to avoid blocks — called “circumlocution” — ­can result in odd, seemingly unrelated phrases that some unknowingly mistake for mental imbalance. Last year, Biden briefly had trouble getting out “Obama,” then quickly called him “my boss.” Numerous media wrongly claimed he “forgot” his former running mate’s name.

Sure, Biden is not as energetic as he was a decade ago, which may increase the frequency of such gaffes as he tires and loses focus on not just what he says, but how he says it. People with similar afflictions marvel that he has not had more speech blunders during the brutal, unforgiving presidential campaign.

It’s not just Trump and Sanders backers who mock opponents’ speech impediments like they are middle-school bullies. In 2018, the campaign of Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr., viewed as a moderate who tries to distance himself from Trump, released videos that made fun of Democratic opponent Ben Jealous’ speech impediment. Jealous said his lifelong stutter at times makes him substitute words that are easier to say. And sometimes he focuses so hard on how he speaks, rather than what he is saying, that he doesn’t realize he has said the wrong word — such as “Virginia” rather than “Maryland” — until after it comes out.

To have Sanders backers make these dementia claims against Biden is surprising in a way, though not in another. Politics can be cutthroat, and Sanders’ surrogates have a financial stake in his campaign. You never know how desperate someone can get until he or she is involved in a political campaign. Sanders himself is a year older than Biden, has had heart problems and can blurt out weird phrases himself. But Sanders supporters overlook these points as they attack Biden.

Of course, when you look at how 12 percent of Sanders supporters in 2016 crossed over and voted for Trump, the fact that some Sanders advocates would mirror the Trump crowd’s tactics should not be much of a surprise. A certain percentage of Sanders and Trump supporters exist on the political extreme edges, seeking radical changes to the system, even political chaos.

Calling Biden “Dementia Joe” and “Joementia,” and portraying him as mentally lacking due to him trying to avoid stuttering seem to be part of a coordinated campaign to attempt to get Sanders back in the primary race after a disastrous Super Tuesday. Since then, Sanders supporters posted talking points on social media that included attacking Biden for his “obvious cognitive decline.” A Sanders spokesman claimed the memo didn’t come from the campaign, but that is often done in politics by surrogates so the official campaign can distance itself from the dirty deeds.

Russian officials have also reportedly circulated the supposed “cognitive decline” smear about Biden, as well. And Sanders backers are using the same tactics as Trump supporters in making these accusations. So you have Russians, Greens, Sanders backers, Trump and his supporters all circulating basically the same smear about Biden.

Politics does, indeed, make for strange bedfellows.

Coulter, by the way, claims that the Democratic Socialist Sanders, who can be easily painted to unknowing voters as a commie with rape fantasies, would be a tougher opponent for Trump than the moderate former vice president who has a much longer record of national political experience than either Trump or Sanders.

If you believe Trump would rather face Biden than Sanders, you will believe the majority of statements the Trump crowd says, most of which are lies.

A Gallup poll shows that 37 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservatives in 2019, with 35 percent as moderate and only 24 percent as liberal. Very few identified themselves as democratic socialist, showing Sanders’ tough road to get elected to a national office.

I’ve enjoyed visits to Vermont and agree with numerous Sanders’ positions and statements. But Vermont is not middle America. He’ll get crushed in a general election, when a lot more casual voters participate than during primaries. These voters are more in the center and aren’t as tied to a political party or ideology. When they hear the word “socialist,” they generally think communist Russia and Cuba. You need someone closer to the center to win a national election or have an extraordinary speaker and campaigner such as Reagan, Obama and Bill Clinton. Or have Russia and the Crosscheck voter tracking system on your side, as Trump did in 2016.

Stuttering, when you think about it, is the only handicap that people still laugh about.Joe Biden, February 2020

It was one of those employee luncheon events where maybe some had been drinking. A sports reporter was moving on to a larger newspaper, and he was asked to say a few words. He mostly did impressions of people he regularly covered on his beat. Some were a little funny, but the biggest laugh of his act came when he imitated a local football coach who stuttered at times. “Y-y-y-y-y-you need to get out there and kick some butt!”

As my face reddened, eyes lowered to the floor and jaw dropped at the boisterous laughter of colleagues, many of whom were around my age of 40, I experienced flashbacks to grade school and junior high three decades before. I saw Brent the Bully kicking me and imitating my blocks as I tried to avoid him while walking home from second-grade class. I recalled the moments of terror right before having to read a passage in class, as some laughed and ridiculed my attempts. I remembered how some who appeared to be friendly would laugh at my speech, mostly behind my back.

I left the room and mentally checked the calendar. Yeah, it was 2000. Not 1970.

By that time, I had conquered my shame and humiliation and fear enough to win awards for reporting in a career that required a significant amount of verbal communication. I had spoken before small and mid-sized groups with fairly good success and not shied away from leadership roles where speaking was required.

I worked hard to remember the techniques learned at the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Virginia to take a breath, gently enunciate the first syllable and try not to think too far ahead, to just focus on the next phrase. It usually helped when speaking before others to write out the entire speech in phrases, one per line. Biden employs a technique in speeches where he draws diagonal lines between phrases to remember not to think too far ahead.

But I still had trouble with certain sounds. I still used the substitution avoidance method at times, as Biden does. At times, when I’m tired and not focusing, the blocks are more severe and numerous. It’s exhausting having to remember how to talk at the same time you have to come up with the words. Sometimes I ramble off the topic, searching for the patterns that will return confidence and a semblance of fluency. At those points, it’s not so much the words I’m saying, as saying something, that helps me find a path back.

Some believe that if a definitive cause could be found for stuttering, a widespread cure would follow. But despite centuries of study, there is still no coherent theory on the causes of stuttering. There may be varying causes in different people, or it may happen only when a combination of factors comes together. For some, certain events can set it off; in my case, my father, who dealt with a stutter, didn’t notice it in me until shortly after my older sister died from complications of Reye’s syndrome when I was almost six.

Much has been learned about factors which contribute to stuttering, such as neurological incoordination of the speech mechanism, stress and reduced blood flow to areas in the brain related to speech. But on the whole, it’s still mysterious.

The list of those afflicted include icons such as Moses, Aristotle, Charles Darwin, and Winston Churchill. Each found similar and different ways to adapt.

Churchill learned he could speak fluently if he prepared and practiced his remarks weeks in advance. The late British Prime Minister would prepare responses to every possible objection and would hum to himself to get his vocal folds vibrating before a speech.

Actor James Earl Jones stuttered so severely when young he spoke little until high school. He learned he could read Shakespeare aloud alone in the fields of his family farm, where he developed his acting skills and booming voice.

Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll had his aspirations to become a priest crushed when he was not allowed to study for the priesthood due to his stuttering. He turned inward and focused on a prolific writing career.

Singers Carly Simon and Mel Tillis grew up unable to express themselves well through speech but could sing fluently so that became their career passion.

The late actress Marilyn Monroe was taught by a speech coach to use exaggerated mouth movements and a breathy speaking style to control an occasional stammer.

Biden spoke to a mirror as a teen, reciting poetry and other literary works. He considers himself someone who has largely overcome his affliction, except for certain times. I never label someone a “stutterer” since a speech affliction is only a part of a person’s character and life, though a bigger one for some than others. As Biden said, “You can’t let it define you.”

Written by

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see https://www.amazon.com/Kevin-J.-Shay/e/B004BCQRTG. Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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