For good and sufficient reason, The Atlantic Senior Politics Editor John Hendrickson had never agreed to appear on television before—and certainly not on a cable outlet where the risk of a gaffe or some other embarrassment was all too real.
Hendrickson had been booked to discuss his groundbreaking story on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his history of stuttering. The piece—“What Joe Biden Can’t Bring Himself to Say”—received attention because the former vice president, a longtime public advocate and role model for stutterers, has never before granted a media interview that is laser-focused in such piercing detail on his own childhood speech disorder, the vestiges of which are still apparent in his campaign appearances and debate performances.
Yet the story was especially compelling, indeed astonishing, because Hendrickson, 31, has struggled with his own pronounced stutter since he was 4 years old. Going on TV, for Hendrickson, was the heart-pounding equivalent of a bungee jump.
“I was definitely nervous,” he told The Daily Beast in a phone interview during which his otherwise effortless eloquence was punctuated by a halting cadence and percussive pops that approximated a verbal drum roll. “I know what I look like and sound like when I talk—and it isn’t pretty. But if I’m going to write this article and my goal is just to help people understand the disorder, then I can’t hide from it either. I had to put myself out there as well.”
MSNBC’s Ruhle, who pre-taped the seven-minute segment with Hendrickson just before her show’s 9 a.m. start time, so he wouldn’t have to cope with the stress of live TV, told The Daily Beast: “I knew it might be something he didn’t want to do, given that he himself has a stutter... We definitely went back and forth the night before, and the last thing I wanted to do was put him in a bad spot… So we asked pretty gingerly, and he was up for it.”
Ruhle added: “To watch a person really put his vulnerabilities out there in such a way—it was a gift that he did it. I’m so grateful. Look at all of us, with our dukes up all the time, feverishly typing tweets attacking one another. Read John’s words, but look in his eyes in that interview. That’s somebody who cares, who really put his vulnerabilities out there and put himself at risk to help people get better and smarter. That’s why he did it, in my opinion. I don’t think he did it to help Joe Biden. I think he did it to help us.”
The reaction to Hendrickson’s MSNBC appearance, and especially to his article—his first piece of writing since joining The Atlantic from Rolling Stone in April—has been overwhelmingly positive.
“He stutters as much as my father did, so you understand the severity I saw for many years,” said Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America, which was launched 72 years ago by her father, Malcolm Fraser, who became a successful entrepreneur despite having to grapple with the disorder throughout his life. Hendrickson “made a great case for greater acceptance of stuttering,” Fraser emailed. “He is VERY courageous because No. 1 on the list of tough things to do are LIVE radio or TV shows!!!”
Gerald Maguire, chairman of the National Stuttering Association (as well as chairman of psychiatry and neuroscience at the University of California at Riverside School of Medicine), also praised Hendrickson.
“You’ve got a great reporter talking about his own stuttering and coming out about it,” said Maguire, who has struggled personally to overcome a severe stutter. “Hopefully it’s going to increase awareness and decrease the stigma, and allow people to be more free about their stuttering and to talk about it openly.”
“He did a really ballsy thing,” Hendrickson’s boss, Atlantic Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, told The Daily Beast. “This guy has more guts than any 20 reporters you’ll meet… Our hearts are bursting with pride.”
Hendrickson’s self-assessment is a tad more restrained. After finishing his seven-minute-long adventure in front of the camera, “I watched it,” he said. “It’s not the most comfortable thing to watch, but it’s true. That’s how I am. All I can do is to try to make peace with it.”
Reporting and writing The Atlantic article, “I felt an immense responsibility, because so many people misunderstand us stutterers,” Hendrickson said. “They view it as purely a manifestation of nervousness or anxiety and they tell you to ‘just calm down’ or ‘chill out.’ But I could be relaxing on a beach in Mexico with the wind on my face, ordering a beer, and I’ll have trouble pronouncing the name of that beer.”
Hendrickson recounted: “My stutter came on at the age of 4. It typically presents in children between the age of 2 and 5. It is a neurological disorder. Between the ages of 2 and 10 is when people have the greatest chance of—quote—full recovery and—quote—beating it. Then, after 10 years old, your chances of ridding yourself of it really decline. They get down to, at most, 25 percent.”
Hendrickson continued: “Throughout elementary school and middle school I saw various therapists—none of whom really offered tactics which worked or which I was able to apply within real-life situations. I’m not blaming the therapists—everybody’s different. In high school, I began seeing Joseph Donaher—one of the people I interviewed [for The Atlantic piece]—and he used a mix of techniques, including classic therapy, emotional therapy, talking about the way that you feel, talking about how this whole thing sucks, and it’s painful, and getting you to articulate those emotions.
“The only alternative therapy I tried was hypnotherapy that took biofeedback readings. It was a little bit of witch doctor kind of stuff, and after about three or four sessions, my mom and I were like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”
In school, “English was always my best subject,” Hendrickson recalled, “perhaps because the difficulty I experienced with expressing myself orally wasn’t true with writing. Writing was really my outlet—my place where I could get a sense of clarity and control.”
Hendrickson naturally gravitated toward journalism—in large part, he said, because his father is noted journalist and author Paul Hendrickson, a much-lauded staffer for the Style section of The Washington Post (where this writer was a colleague) and these days a senior English lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
The family home in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Maryland, “was just littered with newspapers and magazines,” John recalled, “and when I was a little kid I would come into the newsroom, and in middle school I went on a couple of reporting trips. Journalism was always just there, and in my blood.”
Ironically, perhaps, Hendrickson’s speech challenges, which force him to communicate slowly and deliberately, could even prove to be an advantage when it comes to drawing people out in interviews.
“I have quietly thought that yes, that’s true,” he said. “Many reporters, especially political reporters, can be very intimidating. They talk fast and they are knowledgeable and sometimes when candidates and even regular people are interviewed they are intimidated. When I begin to talk, and it just throws off the person I’m talking to, I think they let their guard down a little bit.”
In The Atlantic article concerning what Hendrickson suggests is Biden’s persistent vestigial stutter—which he rendered unsparingly in quotes from their interview and various Biden debate performances—he didn’t spare himself:
“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.’”
At one point, Hendrickson asked the candidate to describe what he was experiencing during the second televised Democratic primary debate in Detroit when he seemed, as Hendrickson wrote, “to lose control of his words onstage.”
“‘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.’”
Hendrickson wrote: “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.”
In the piece, Hendrickson notes that the 77-year-old Biden was widely mocked for his performance, especially on Fox News, which ran a montage of Biden’s verbal infelicities and insinuated that he was losing his marbles. Fox News host Steve Hilton laughingly quipped: “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.”
But it’s more likely that Biden’s miscues were due to a stutter, not a supposed decline in brain power, Hendrickson argued.
Hendrickson wrote that during their close encounter, however, Biden resisted the notion that stuttering remains a challenge: “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.”
Hendrickson told The Daily Beast that he sat down with Biden for an hour in late August at his Washington campaign office and, in the weeks since, “we listened to the tape recording again and again. Our research and fact-checking department listened to it many, many times, and we went back and forth on details like ‘should that be two h’s or three h’s?’ It was down to that level. It took a very long time. The conversation between my editor and myself was always that we have to illustrate what this is like.”
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, seems well-pleased with the result.
In an email, a campaign spokesperson cited the candidate’s well-documented capacity for human connection and empathy—“especially true for those he has offered solace to in times of loss, drawing from his own tragic story—as well as those who have worked to overcome a stutter or other difficulties as he has. That sense of empathy and humanity shines through in John’s piece, and we’re heartened that so many people have drawn strength or inspiration from reading it.”