What origin story does Biden have in common with our top-tier presidents?
When people made light of Joseph Robinette Biden’s speech patterns during the campaign, I thought, “but he’s talked like that for decades.” So it clicked like a Rubik’s Cube when I read that JRB’s verbal stumbles reflected a speech disability, not encroaching senility: he stuttered as a child.
Remember when Donald Trump made fun of that reporter with a disability? It made me wonder what would have happened if opponents had made fun of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inability to walk. At a time when a physical disability was commonly thought to indicate a weak mind, he could have lost the election. Without FDR, we wouldn’t have Social Security. The allies might not have won against Hitler and Japan.
We now know that his success — and his “origin story” in the parlance of superheroes — stemmed from polio, which struck him like a lightning bolt when he was 39 years old. He went from being a good state-level politician to becoming a peerless national leader.
FDR became a real-life, wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier who lead the fight against the super villains of the Axis Powers.
After his death, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Franklin’s illness . . . gave him strength and courage he had not had before.”
Historians commonly rank FDR among our top presidents; if there were space for a fifth face on Mount Rushmore, it would be his. If that happened, FDR would not be the only one up there who had successfully fielded life’s curveballs.
In fact, every one of the Rushmore Four had disability-based origin stories that gave them unique superpowers they needed to helm this rebellious nation.
- Teddy Roosevelt struggled with asthma and was near-sighted. But inspired by his father, TR famously chose to “build my body” and prevailed as a rancher, combat veteran, police commissioner and New York governor. Then he became a president who fought to protect working families and small businesses from monopolist corporations. He also ignored blowback from white supremacists by dining with Booker T. Washington at the White House.
- Abraham Lincoln wrestled with depression as a young man and suffered from Marfan’s Syndrome; symptoms of which are long limbs, hollow cheeks and painful joints. Yet he led the fight to crush a treasonous army and liberate enslaved Americans.
- George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew up with dyslexia yet marshaled the defeat of the British Empire and helped create a new republic. Jefferson, like Biden, also overcame a stutter.
But the presidential disability-superpower tour isn’t over.
Harry Truman was temporarily paralyzed at the age of 8 by diphtheria. James Madison contended with epilepsy. JFK, Eisenhower and Wilson had to outwit their dyslexia. Woodrow Wilson’s disability was so severe that he could barely read at age 9. Yet he became president of Princeton University before winning the White House and supporting women’s suffrage.
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Of our 45 presidents, we have ten whose battles with disabilities spawned some of their strengths. But they all did more than eke out election victories. According to the Siena College’s Presidential Ranking Survey, all 10 rank among our top 11 presidents. Talk about superpowers.
So, perhaps JRB’s disability superpower will allow him to unite a broad-based coalition equal to the dangers our democracy and our planet face. Will his superpower catapult him into the upper ranks with those 10 presidents as well?
But let’s not forget that Donald Trump also reportedly suffered from a potentially character-building disability: bone spurs. Despite this opportunity to develop similar superpowers, historians ranked him third from the bottom in 2018. In this case maybe the exception does prove the rule.
Frank Hyman is a former Durham City Council member, author of the third Living Wage Ordinance in the US and policy analyst at Blue Collar Comeback.
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