Biden's Stutter Is Core to His Identity. His Account of the Moment He Overcame It Doesn’t Add Up.

Biden suffered from a childhood stutter, but the details of how he kicked it have been called into question over the years

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
April 15, 2024

All politicians have origin stories, and many, including President Joe Biden, have several anecdotes they have relayed time and again to tell voters who they are, how they learned the lessons that shaped their beliefs and worldview, and why they got into politics.

Biden’s include the tragic death of his first wife and young daughter in a 1972 car crash, his transition as a young lawyer from private practice to the public defender’s office, and his efforts as a young boy and in adolescence to grapple with an embarrassing stutter.

The stories he has relayed to voters and reporters over his decades-long political career contain kernels of truth. But Biden has also developed a well-earned reputation for stretching the truth and embellishing the details.

The Washington Free Beacon reported last month, for example, that the president’s account of the case that supposedly soured him on private practice and sent him into the public sector is almost certainly a tall tale. And it is well documented that Biden erroneously claimed his wife and daughter were killed by a drunk driver—in fact, the driver’s family and a Delaware judge who investigated the crash have said it was a tragic accident.

There is no question Biden suffered from a stutter as a child. But the details of how he overcame it are murky. The president often claims he kicked the stutter delivering a speech at his high school commencement in 1961. Part of that story is virtually impossible to corroborate.

Reporters have long been unable to confirm that Biden spoke at his graduation at all, nor did a Free Beacon review turn up any evidence of Biden delivering that address.

This report is part of a Free Beacon series on various personal stories that are core to Biden’s political identity and based on a review of his memoirs, autobiographies, and contemporaneous news articles about his high school graduation.

On the campaign trail in 1987, Biden relayed a story about how he overcame his childhood stutter. He said he overcame the affliction in a 1961 speech delivered at his high school graduation from Archmere Academy, a Delaware prep school. Reporters noted at the time that Biden initially said it was the "commencement" address, but later revised the story to say it was a "welcoming speech." Regardless of what kind of billing the speech got, Biden said it was "the hardest" one he ever delivered.

Curiously, there was one person to whom Biden did not repeat the tale: Richard Ben Cramer, whose What It Takes is based on the thousands of hours of interviews Cramer conducted over several months on the campaign trail with Biden and his opponents.

Cramer devotes more than a dozen pages to Biden’s stutter, but then-senator Biden never mentioned the triumphant graduation story, nor did seemingly anyone Cramer spoke with.

Biden does not seem to have begun telling the graduation story until his campaign fell on hard times. In a matter of weeks, Biden was caught lying about his grades in law school—he falsely claimed he was at the "top of his class" and earned a merit scholarship, when in reality his marks were "never exceptional," according to the New York Times. Shortly thereafter, he was accused of plagiarizing speeches from Robert Kennedy and British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Now the underdog of the Democratic primary, Biden began using the story of how he stood up to his fellow classmates—who once mocked him as "stutterhead" and "Bi-bi-bi-den"—as proof of his resilience and ability to emerge triumphant when the odds were stacked against him.

But contemporaneous accounts of Biden’s high school graduation ceremony raise questions about whether the speech took place. A press release from the school makes no mention of Biden speaking. Nor is Biden mentioned in several newspaper articles about the ceremony, save to say he was part of the graduating class. Those articles do mention awards given out to several of Biden’s classmates.

A half-dozen attendees of that graduation ceremony told a Knight-Ridder Newspapers reporter in 1987 that Biden did not speak at the ceremony. The class valedictorian told the reporter he was the only student who spoke at the ceremony.

"Senator Joseph Biden is a presidential candidate whose recollections of his life sometimes come shaded differently than others can remember," the paper wrote at the time. "One recent illustration is Biden's memory of how he overcame the stutter that plagued him while attending Archmere Academy."

"In the past, Biden has told reporters that he proved he had beaten the problem with a speech that was the 'hardest' he ever delivered in his life—his 1961 high school commencement speech," the piece continued. "James F. Gleason, the valedictorian of the class who is now an attorney in New York City, said that he was the only student who delivered a speech that day. He said he had ‘no recollection' of a Biden commencement speech."

The school’s headmaster, Rev. Justin Diny, who, according to that same report, oversaw the graduation commencement, also said he had no "recollection" of Biden speaking that day. Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden-Owens, claimed to the Knight-Ridder reporter that her brother spoke, but provided no evidence to support the claim.

In addition to Knight-Ridder, the Washington Post asked Biden at the time to address allegations that he lied about the graduation speech, citing reports to the contrary. Biden called the reports "inaccurate." He also stood by a story he told from his high school days in which he left a restaurant that refused to serve a black classmate. The classmate said Biden was not "aware of what happened" and finished his meal without incident.

Biden has repeated his graduation speech story since his disastrous 1987 presidential bid. In his autobiography Promises To Keep, he wrote that "[during] our graduation in June 1961 … I stood up on stage and made the welcome to friends and parents without a single stammer."

"It was the final confirmation that the stutter was not going to hold me back," Biden wrote. "I beat that stutter with a lot of hard work and with the support of my teachers and family."

That same story appears in an authorized biography of Biden called Joe Biden: A Life Of Trial And Redemption. A footnote cites Biden’s Promises To Keep.

Now, nearly four decades after he began talking about his stutter, Biden has changed the story once again. His stutter is no longer something he overcame in the past, but a persistent disability that explains verbal gaffes others attribute to the president’s advanced age.

After former president Donald Trump mocked Biden at a rally in Georgia last month, the latter’s reelection campaign slammed Trump for his cruelty. Biden, his campaign’s X account said, has "a lifelong stutter." Less than two weeks later, the Washington Post published a story about how Trump "falsely" claims Biden "is stuttering during his speeches."

Reached for comment, White House spokesman Andrew Bates assured the Free Beacon that Biden spoke at his graduation ceremony. For evidence, Bates shared a screenshot of a page from Joe Biden: A Trial Of Life And Redemption along with another screenshot of a citation that said one of Biden’s classmates corroborated the graduation speech story.

But the citation Bates shared was for an entirely different chapter of the book, and pertained to a story about Biden’s courtship of his first wife, Neilia.

The Free Beacon made Bates aware of the error and asked for further clarity on the issue. The Free Beacon also asked Bates for comment on Biden’s April 8 claim that he was the first member of his family to graduate from college—the claim Biden plagiarized in 1987 from former British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Back then, Biden conceded to the New York Times that members of his mother's family "went to college."

"President Biden is proud to have spoken at his high school graduation and proud to be the first Biden to graduate college," Bates said.