Columnist John Sheirer: Considering Joe Biden’s brain

  • Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles as he takes a question from a reporter at a campaign event at the William "Hicks" Anderson Community Center in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, July 28, 2020.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Andrew Harnik

Published: 8/10/2020 9:50:00 AM

Jay Fleitman’s most recent Gazette column (“Biden for president?,” Aug. 4) calls into question Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities. I read Fleitman’s column closely and gave it serious consideration, and, I must confess, I’m concerned. The column has identified someone who lacks the critical thinking skills to be taken seriously.

Joe Biden? No, he’s just fine. I’m worried about Jay Fleitman.

Let’s disregard that Fleitman (a pulmonologist) is making a neurological diagnosis. Let’s also set aside the issue of a physician rendering that diagnosis without examining the subject, especially such a damning diagnosis: “(Biden) clearly has a degenerative neurological disorder in which dementia is a part.” Presumably, the medical profession has appropriate ethical guidelines for these situations.

I won’t pretend to be a physician. I’m an English teacher, so I’ll assess the cognitive skills Fleitman shows in writing his attack on Biden.

Trump’s enablers have made Biden’s cognitive ability a central thrust of their flailing campaign. They know that Trump can’t win on the issues or his record, and they’re desperately projecting Trump’s obvious flaws onto Biden. So it’s worth debunking these attacks, especially when presented with faux medical authority.

Fleitman bases much of his attack on three Biden videos that he says are “signs of significant cognitive defects.” But the real defects are Fleitman’s misrepresentations of these videos.

One clip shows Biden saying this about his experience with nurses: “They’d actually breathe in my nostrils to make me move, to get me moving.” That may sound strange, but Fleitman goes on to mischaracterize Biden’s comment.

Fleitman wrote that Biden said the nurse “whispered in his ear that if anything medically serious would happen to him, that she could breathe up through his nose and bring him back to health.” That’s not remotely what Biden said. Frankly, Fleitman’s dishonest misquote of Biden is more concerning than Biden’s oddly vivid anecdote.

The second video shows Biden starting a speech with a somewhat ineffective joke about local landmarks to appeal to his audience in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden’s home state. Biden acknowledges the failed joke, laughs it off, and goes on to talk in detail about the location. Then he presents a coherent, animated, insightful, hourlong campaign speech.

Fleitman didn’t get the joke because he’s not from Wilmington. Neither am I, but I found the full video of Biden’s speech, watched it, and understood the context. Why didn’t Fleitman do the same before falsely claiming that Biden “clearly did not know where he was”? Biden obviously knows where he is.

Fleitman’s third video is, again, cherry-picked from a longer source. Minimal research shows the full video of Biden saying “2020” when he meant “2000.” Fleitman says this simple mistake shows cognitive decline. But Fleitman himself wrote in his column that Biden said “two or three years ago” when Biden actually said, “two censuses ago.” That’s also a simple mistake that shows Fleitman can’t even pass the cognitive test he applies to Biden.

Later in his column, Fleitman claims that Biden said 120 million Americans had died of COVID, which would be an obvious error. But the error (lie?) is Fleitman’s for not noting that Biden immediately corrected himself with the actual number at the time: 120,000.

Fleitman then claims that Democrats consider Biden mentally unfit, based on overhearing “several conversations.” Does Fleitman understand that a few conversations don’t represent the views of millions of people? Or is he fictionalizing these conversations in a weak attempt to support his failed argument?

Next, Fleitman absurdly compares Biden to a dying Franklin Roosevelt. He comments that Biden’s vice presidential search should look for a “competent chief executive” instead of what he calls “other criteria,” specifically “women of color.” Fleitman seems unaware that being a woman or a person of color isn’t an impediment to being president.

To conclude his column, Fleitman claims he’s not giving Donald Trump “a pass” on cognitive competence. But Fleitman actually gives Trump that pass, shrugging his rhetorical shoulders and saying it’s “impossible … to know” about Trump’s mental state. Shouldn’t a competent writer hold Trump to the same scrutiny that he just tried (unsuccessfully) to apply to Biden?

Of course, Biden isn’t perfect. No one is. He’s a senior citizen and pretty goofy sometimes. But he shows significant linguistic cognition in overcoming a lifelong stutter, something Fleitman conveniently fails to mention in his attack.

Here are three methods that Fleitman ignores for honestly assessing Biden’s mental capacity. First, read Biden’s actual platform and watch his full speeches rather than relying on out-of-context snippets. Second, watch all of Trump’s speeches and read all of his tweets to contrast him with Biden. The difference is clear.

Third, instead of relying on Trump-supporting concern trolls like Fleitman, let’s hear from the actual neurologist who examines Biden. Dr. Neal Kassell has been seeing Biden regularly since operating to repair Biden’s brain aneurysms three decades ago. He says Biden’s fine.

“I am going to vote for the candidate who I am absolutely certain has a brain that is functioning,” Kassell says, “and that narrows it down to exactly one.” I’ll be voting for Biden as well. That’s a no-brainer.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher who lives in Florence. His most recent book is the pandemic-themed novella, “Fever Cabin.” Find him at

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