Wed 22 Oct 2008
This has been an unlikely presidential campaign in many respects, particularly because new facts about the candidates keep coming to light. Here’s one that came to me in a strangely circuitous fashion.
The night before last week’s full moon, I happened to be outside at twilight when the moon rose over the hill above my cabin. The sight was evocative enough that I grabbed my camera and found a spot near my woodshed where I could record the moment.
A corner of the woodshed ended up in my photo, and I was immediately reminded of K-K-K-Katy, one of the most popular songs of World War I. In the 1918 song by Geoffrey O’Hara, a stuttering “soldier brave and bold” sings:
“K-K-K-Kathy, beautiful Katy,/ You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore./ When the m-m-m-moon shines,/Over the c-c-c-cowshed,/ I’ll be waiting at the k-k-k-kitchen door.”
Although my shed is for wood, not cows, I was by now interested in the song. I looked up composer O’Hara (1882-1967) and learned he was a Canadian who left home and became a US citizen. For me, that was noteworthy because my mother did the same thing.
But what about portraying stuttering as humorous? These days that would be considered politically incorrect even though Porky Pig (“Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-Th-That’s all folks!”) has been one of Warner Brothers most loved cartoon characters.
Googling onward, I learned that the actor, Joe Dougherty, who was the original voice of Porky Pig, had a stutter himself. Like many other people who stutter, Dougherty apparently learned to deal with the problem.
A story many of us heard in school concerns the great Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 BC). To master speaking clearly despite starting out with an impediment, Demosthenes, as we learned, put gravel in his mouth and practiced speeches at the edge of the ocean where the surf drowned him out.
When I checked a list of famous people who’ve stuttered, Demosthenes (at right in a painting by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy) was, of course, on it. But also, to my surprise, was Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. In fact, the senator from Delaware turns out to be a sort of latter-day Demosthenes.
“Biden suffered from stuttering through much of his childhood and into his twenties,” notes Wikipedia, citing a speech he gave to the National Stuttering Association in 2004. “He overcame it via long hours spent reciting poetry in front of a mirror,” Wikipedia adds, citing See How They Run: Electing the President in an Age of Mediaocracy by Paul Taylor (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990).
Most of us have heard the tragic story of Biden’s daughter and first wife being killed, as well as his two sons critically injured, in a traffic accident. This happened just weeks after he was initially elected to the US Senate in 1972. It took many months, but Biden (at left) eventually recovered from his devastation, becoming an increasingly influential senator while commuting daily between Delaware and Washington in order to raise two sons by himself. Now it turns out that Biden had earlier demonstrated similar fortitude in overcoming severe stuttering.
This is a man who has risen above major adversities in his life. That alone doesn’t qualify him to be vice president or president, but it does say something about the kind of person he is.