Before the controversy over his choice of wardrobe, it was the health of Democratic Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania that was front and center in the minds of many. At six-foot-eight inches, he was known in Pennsylvania political circles as a “gentle giant.”
The 54-year-old served as the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, from 2006 to 2019, and as the state’s 34th lieutenant governor from 2019 to 2023. He was long known for his preference for gym shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, but much of the focus in 2022 was on the near-fatal stroke that he suffered just before the Keystone State’s Democratic primary in 2022.
That setback might have sidelined other candidates, but Fetterman won by a landslide. However, Fetterman’s wife Gisele was forced to give his victory speech.
Fetterman was largely absent from public events until he appeared at an August 2022 rally in Erie. In October 2022, he gave his first in-person interview, with Dasha Burns, on “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.” Due to the stroke, he required closed-captioning technology to read the questions as they were being asked.
Though NBC News simply tried to show the challenges he continues to face, many rallied around Fetterman, as other reporters said they had no difficulty in conducting interviews. It could be argued even today, the media gives the gentle giant a pass that other politicians might not receive.
It wasn’t just the stroke that should be seen as concerning for Pennsylvania voters.
After being elected to the United States Senate in November, the legislative body’s chamber was outfitted with closed captioning technology at his desk and at the front of the chamber. Just a month after taking office, he was forced to live and work at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center as he battled a severe case of depression.
As recently as this past July, Fetterman still required the use of aids – including iPads propped on stands – that can transcribe interviews in real-time.
Is John Fetterman Up to the Job?
For the most part, it does seem as if Fetterman is on top of the job. He can cast votes and conduct the business of the day. He should be seen as a symbol of overcoming adversity – but some would still argue that he is just one of several lawmakers who may not be fit for the rigors of the job. Questions of the health of Diane Feinstein, the Democratic senator from California, and GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have also been asked in recent months.
As noted, others haven’t been as fortunate as Fetterman to win election following such a health crisis. Case in point, former Illinois Senator Mark Kirk ran for re-election in 2016 after a severe stroke left the Republican wheelchair-bound and partially paralyzed. He lost the race to Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat who suffered serious disabilities stemming from injuries sustained during her military career.
Yes, Kirk was worse off than Fetterman, but after just weeks into the job, the treatment for depression should have set off serious alarm bells.
The Myth of Fetterman
It could be argued too that Fetterman is simply an easy target – and not just because he is a big guy who prefers those gym shorts and hoodies to a suit. But then, another argument still could be made that it isn’t the health issues that are the biggest concerns.
As Becket Adams, program director of the National Journalism Center, wrote for The Hill this week, the mainstream media regularly covered for Fetterman, including by not challenging the “blue collar” background that he carefully cultivated. Fetterman’s dress suggests he’s an outsider, while his health issues would have derailed many other campaigns – were it not in a battleground that was do-or-die for both parties in the midterms. He arguably ran against a bad candidate – TV personality Dr. Memet Oz, who was known to promote pseudoscience including faith healing and other paranormal beliefs.
The myth of Fetterman held that he was a blue-collar guy taking on a TV star worth upwards of $500 million. Except, much like President Joe Biden’s working-class hero background, it was largely made up.
“[Fetterman] graduated from Harvard in 1999, was financially supported by his parents well into his 40s, and has spent most of the last two decades as a politician. He is no ‘working man,'” Adams argued, who added, “Why, exactly, does the junior senator from Pennsylvania refuse to wear a suit and tie to what is obviously a suit-and-tie job? Why the constant absences? Why the need for the accommodation?”
Biden’s age – as well as that of Feinstein and McConnell – is and certainly should be an issue with American voters. It therefore would be wrong for the media – and voters – to give a pass to a candidate who may have been unable to carry out the duties of the job. Were he really a blue-collar worker at a factory, Fetterman would likely have received workers’ compensation and would be focused on his recovery.
He already had to battle depression and has been cautious of spending too much time away from his family. Arguably, voters decided his health wasn’t an issue, but perhaps Adams is correct that those voters were not given the complete picture of John Fetterman at the time.
Author Experience and Expertise:
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.