On Tuesday night, a man did something extremely brave—risking public ridicule while recovering from a health condition he has only lived with for a few months, he chose to go onto the stage and take part in a high-profile political debate.
The response from pundits was, in a word, wilting. It seemed like people who have been forced to analyze politics through the prism of respectability now were at a loss as to how to assess John Fetterman, who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania against Dr. Mehmet Oz, a TV doctor who has shown less than compassion for his opponent’s challenges. The word “heartbreaking” got thrown out more than a few times, despite the Fetterman campaign emphasizing that he can still effectively do this job with a small amount of assistive equipment.
Thus far, the health condition has not sunk his chances in the polls, but at the same time, it feels like the confidence in his abilities has been shaken. As David A. Graham of The Atlantic put it:
Fetterman agreed to a single debate with Oz and tried to set expectations very low. Even so, he seems to have missed them. Perhaps refusing to debate would have raised even more questions, but Democrats are now questioning whether he should have simply declined to appear. Underlying all this is a bigger, usually unspoken anxiety: Is Fetterman really capable of closing out the campaign? The question is somewhat idle, though, because there’s no replacing him now.
This leaves Fetterman asking voters to take it on faith that only his speaking, and not his thinking, is impaired. Candidates ask voters to take any number of things on faith, but Fetterman’s speech troubles are more overt, and yet also much harder for an ordinary person to assess, than a pledge not to vote to raise taxes.
The word “damage control” is being thrown out. People are afraid that this man, who did something undeniably brave like debate in public despite a auditory processing condition that makes it hard to process spoken speech, might not win because of the perception of a small number of voters.
We’re being reminded how small gaffes, like Rick Perry forgetting a single entry in a list of three, were enough to sink campaigns, or how (going further back) Richard Nixon once wilted under the bright lights of a television camera.
But I’d like to make a case that, even if he does not win his election in a week and a half (given all the early voting and Oz’s own gaffes during the debate, it’s still up for question), Fetterman did something really important: He represented the kind of person who usually does not get a spot on that stage. In may ways, he was already arguably that kind of person, as someone who is fairly large, heavily tattooed, and from a somewhat nontraditional background.
From a perspective of demographics, Fetterman’s oft-referenced “privileged upbringing” doesn’t really offer the full picture. He spent years working in public service and counseling at-risk youth before he took a more political role. At one point, he helped mentor a boy who lost both of his parents to AIDS.
“I became preoccupied with the concept of the random lottery of birth,” Fetterman once said of the volunteer work. “Why was I born into this incredibly privileged and comfortable existence, and this child, through no fault of his own, was an AIDS orphan by eight and a half and was living in an incredibly dangerous section of New Haven? All of this, of course, eight blocks away from one of the world’s most elite universities.”
To put it another way, he put his whole career behind people who didn’t have an easy go of it.
Sure, he had all the relevant degrees, including a Harvard Masters of Public Policy, but his political career did not look like anyone else’s. No matter. He let the work speak for itself, and for the most part, it has.
Throughout my life, I have been extremely uncomfortable in a public-speaking setting. I have only somewhat recently snapped out of that, and am trying to take it on more often. To me, when I see Fetterman put himself up to such scrutiny on such a major stage, I see someone who is brave enough to put all the naysayers at risk, to show that there are people in positions like his that are often unspoken for in public life.
And I guess I think to myself, if he can do something like this, what am I so afraid of, with no true disability other than my frayed nerves? John Fetterman, by not playing by the rules that would tell him to step aside and sit down in this particular moment, is arguably the bravest person in politics right now. We should be celebrating that and learning from it.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: 49 seconds