Talking About John Fetterman’s Stroke Is Not Ableism
The Senate candidate had a major health emergency. Discussing how that might affect his job performance should not be out of bounds.
Five months ago, John Fetterman had a stroke. He was on the way to an event for his Pennsylvania Senate campaign when his wife noticed that the left side of his mouth was drooping. After rushing to the hospital, doctors were able to remove the clot, put in a pacemaker, and save the candidate from what he has called a “near-death experience.”
It was especially terrible timing for the campaign, with the Pennsylvania Democratic primary—and therefore the start of the general election season—just four days away. The recovery process meant that Fetterman couldn’t do in-person events or live interviews and had to rely on a mostly digital strategy. When he did make his first post-stroke public appearance in August to speak at a rally, the after-effects were conspicuous in the unnatural tempo of his speech and his occasional fumble over words.
In an interview that aired last Tuesday on NBC, Fetterman seemed to be having similar though less dramatic challenges. Because of difficulty he says he is having with “auditory processing,” he relied on a computer to transcribe reporter Dasha Burns’ questions into closed captions. And although he did forget a few words and muddle the occasional phrase, Fetterman didn’t seem to have any problem understanding questions or formulating coherent responses.
Given the relative normalcy of the interview, it likely would have slid under the national radar if it wasn’t for one specific remark made by Burns—and the activist outcry that followed. That comment came in a segment introducing the interview on NBC Nightly News, in which Burns noted that “in small talk before the interview without captioning, it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.” This seemingly innocuous tidbit is what kickstarted the rage machine and brought the story into the national spotlight.
Frustration appeared in the opinion pages of many national media outlets. Some of these articles explicitly called discussion about Fetterman’s fitness for office “ableist” while others quoted disability activists making the accusations of ableism, and then treated that testimony as conclusive. One article in The New York Times took a more measured rhetorical approach, arguing that, in making the comment about pre-interview small talk, Burns was suggesting “that certain kinds of accommodation are illegitimate” and that she was “implying that NBC was doing Mr. Fetterman a favor by using captioning and that it was a problem for the candidate that he needed technology to reliably converse.” Irrespective of the tone, each of these articles ultimately had the same goal: to shut down candid discussion about the fact that Fetterman’s stroke could potentially impact his ability to do the job of a senator.
But no matter how much journalists, activists, and the campaign might disagree, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the health of a candidate running for one of the highest elected offices in the nation. Being a politician, especially a senator, is hard work. It requires long days negotiating with colleagues, listening to and giving speeches, sitting through hours of committee meetings, and the like. Physical and cognitive stamina are necessary to be effective. It’s valid for voters to ask whether or not Fetterman’s stroke would impact his job performance, and therefore his ability to effectively represent the people of Pennsylvania.
As recently as a few years ago, most people wouldn’t have denied that a stroke's aftereffects are reasonable to consider when evaluating a Senate candidate. There is even a test case from 2016, when the Chicago Tribune explicitly cited Republican Senator Mark Kirk’s stroke as grounds for endorsing his Democratic challenger:
While a stroke by no means disqualifies anyone from public office, we cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk's recovery and readiness. His health is a fundamental component of this race — a hotly contested matchup that could return control of the U.S. Senate to Democrats. We aren't physicians; Kirk's doctor attests to his good cognitive health. But we are voters. And our reluctant judgment is that, due to forces beyond his control, Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest the job of a U.S. senator.
When this was published, there wasn’t any pushback of the sort that is coming now from the people and groups so aggressively defending Fetterman. The lack of outrage is likely because Kirk was a Republican and, more importantly, people recognized the validity of the Tribune’s concern. The unfortunate truth is that strokes can be life-changing events with aftereffects that never fully go away, and so asking questions about Fetterman’s health shouldn’t be out of bounds. The media and the Fetterman campaign should be addressing the issue head-on.
For their part, reporters should be investigating Fetterman’s health status and pushing for access to his complete medical records (which he’s refused to release so far). If they find that Fetterman has a clean bill of cognitive health, they should report that. If they find the opposite, or if they’re unable to get to the truth due to obfuscation from the Fetterman campaign, they should report that too.
Meanwhile, Fetterman shouldn’t shy away from questions about his health. If he wants to allay voters’ concerns, he could release his complete medical records and make more public appearances. Similarly, he could explain what accommodations will be provided for him in the Senate to allow him to do his job despite his health challenges. Such a strategy would require patience and respect for concerned voters rather than scorn and recriminations.
Reasonable people can, of course, disagree about the point at which honest concern veers into genuinely offensive prejudice. Unfortunately, Fetterman’s challenger Mehmet Oz, and some right-wing media figures, are guilty of the latter. Oz’s campaign joked that "if John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn't have had a major stroke and wouldn't be in the position of having to lie about it constantly." Fox News’s Tucker Carlson made comments that were even more off-color when discussing the closed captioning that Fetterman used in the NBC interview: “Here you have one of the most famous politicians in the country merging with a computer … where exactly does the software end and John Fetterman’s consciousness begin?”
It’s a shame that Fetterman’s allies have refused to differentiate between these types of attacks and earnest concern about Fetterman’s health. Though they might not realize it, those who fail to make this distinction are hurting their own cause; their public frustration has brought more attention to the issue of Fetterman’s health than the NBC interview alone ever would have. Likewise, a great number of Pennsylvanians are probably seeing charges of ableism and just rolling their eyes at yet another instance of tone policing from the left.
In any case, voters will soon have the chance to decide for themselves how they think Fetterman is faring health-wise. Next week, Fetterman and Oz will take to the debate stage—a venue that requires sharp thinking and quick rhetoric. The best thing for both the media and the Fetterman campaign to do from here on out is to be as transparent and candid about discussing Fetterman’s health as possible.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.
This article represents the individual views of the author, not those of Persuasion.
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