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October 23, 2012 > How a stammering kid became a governor's spokesman

How a stammering kid became a governor's spokesman

By Michael Gormley, Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP), Oct 20 - Richard Bamberger fought a paralyzing stammer most of his life to take on an unlikely career path that has included directing the crushing deadlines of big-city TV newsrooms, helping to negotiate a hostage crisis and becoming the chief spokesman for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Stuttering once threatened to define the affable 42-year-old with a grin that's been described, not unkindly, as goofy. In Albany, Bamberger discovered early on that the many tricks he used to mask his stammer would no longer work in the daily verbal sparring with the New York City and Albany press corps as the voice of the high-volume Cuomo administration.

In December 2008, Bamberger was just days into working for then-Attorney General Cuomo as he took on Wall Street and corruption scandals in Albany. Bamberger readied Cuomo for a teleconference with 50 or 60 reporters from around the world hungry for details of action Cuomo would take regarding huge bonuses paid to Wall Street executives who had laid off workers and taken federal bailouts as the economy cratered.

Cuomo, who knew of Bamberger's stutter, unexpectedly told him: ``You're going to lead off.''

``No, the operator can do that,'' Bamberger responded.

``No, you can do it,'' Cuomo insisted.

``It turned out to be the greatest thing,'' Bamberger recalled four year later. ``For years before that, I would have never believed I could do that.''

Since then, he's conducted news conferences, spoken to universities and led an uncommon life for a guy who for years couldn't speak without stress seizing his throat. Bamberger is now leaving Cuomo after helping him historically high poll ratings in New York and a potential path to a presidential bid in 2016.

In New York politics, hesitation in delivering ``the message'' is a weakness. It undermines the sometimes bellowing thrusts and parries with reporters done on intense deadlines. A misstatement, tepid argument or gaffe can be seen by millions of people daily, forever online and, perhaps most importantly, by Cuomo.

To outsiders, Bamberger has long been seen as the nice guy in the hard-charging offices of attorney general and governor. Reporters who have worked closely with him also have seen him deliver fierce and confident defense of Cuomo laced with complex facts, hard political spin and in-your-face confrontation.

But no stammer.

It's an updated, American version of ``The King's Speech,'' the 2010 movie about Britain's King George VI and his hard-fought triumph over a severe stammer to inspire his people in a critical radio speech during World War II.

``We are not surprised by Mr. Bamberger's success,'' said Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation based in Memphis, Tenn. ``It has been our experience that many persons who stutter have within themselves the capacity to find better fluency through hard work and speech therapy. ... His achievement is another positive example for the stuttering community.''

Bamberger's stammer was so severe he didn't speak until he was 3.

His cantor drilled the 13-year-old Bamberger in the lengthy responses he needed to complete a ``terrifying'' bar mitzvah in the cavernous Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Simply being able to say ``acacia wood,'' common in the traditional recitation, took hours.

Some good friends and a little sleight of hand helped Bamberger hide his stammer. When a girl asked Bamberger his name, a friend would quickly note he said ``Rich,'' and that she must not have understood him, even though he only got out ``itch.'' In what can be a cutthroat social scene in New York City's private schools, Bamberger's buddies helped.

``Kids made fun a little bit,'' remembers Eric Soloway, a Bamberger pal since seventh grade. ``We'd know when he was struggling and we'd say the word for him, even if it was in class. He became good with synonyms, sometimes he would switch from `excellent' to `awesome' if he was stuck.'' When stressed, he'd introduce himself by his middle name, Alan, instead of risking ``Richard.''

``We also protected him... we were in the boat with him,'' said Soloway, now a writer-producer-director in Manhattan.

``It's imperceptible now,'' Soloway said. ``That he triumphed over that, it says a lot about him.''

For years, he resorted to humming his conversations, a way to string words together and keep his voice box from closing and possibly seizing up between words. Then there was drilling, exercises and recitations every day after school at a speech therapist.

He got hooked on the adrenaline rush of news at his Skidmore College newspaper and eventually worked in TV news in Miami and Detroit and for ``Inside Edition.'' His second day on the job as managing editor of WCBS-TV News in New York City was Sept. 11, 2001.

In that job, he once served for hours as the go-between for police and a former student who claimed to have a bomb and held 28 hostages at a university. A hostage called the station after seeing the news helicopter that Bamberger had dispatched to the scene. Over more than a dozen calls, Bamberger took rambling demands from the hostage taker through the student, relaying them to police. The ex-student ultimately released the hostages and the bomb turned out to be a fake.

His executive producer boss and wife, Kristin Quillinan, nearly created another crisis when she forced him into his first on-air appearance to talk about the standoff. And he did.

Bamberger will soon leave Cuomo for a private-sector communications job in Manhattan. But in publicly talking at length for the first time about his once-paralyzing stammer, he is delivering one more message.

``You just don't give up and you never let it beat you,'' Bamberger said.

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Online:

The Stuttering Foundation: http://www.StutteringHelp.org

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