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John Fetterman is actually radically open about his health

Writer Rebecca Traister talks about her recent experience reporting on the candidate, and the dispiriting narrative that's emerged about his fitness for office.

This week has seen a media circus about Pennsylvania Democratic senate candidate John Fetterman’s health and ability to communicate. After an NBC News journalist reported Tuesday evening about some supposed cognitive issues during her recent sit down interview with him, wild speculation about what’s really going on with Fetterman began to swirl. The candidate has been very open about the fact that he now requires closed captioning during interviews as a result of a stroke in May, and the alleged communication trouble with the reporter happened before the captions were rolling.

It just so happened that the day prior, writer Rebecca Traister published a lengthy profile of Fetterman in New York Magazine, which addresses the current Lt. Governor’s challenges, but also how significantly he’s improved since his stroke in May. And it paints a portrait of a candidate pouring his heart and soul into perhaps the most consequential political race this November.

So when Twitter was suddenly ablaze with speculation about Fetterman’s health, I immediately wondered how Traister felt about this complete re-framing of his story, how it squared with what she witnessed in her weeks of reporting on the ground in Pennsylvania, and how this narrative might impact the election. She was generous enough to speak with me by phone Thursday morning. Here’s our conversation, condensed for length and clarity:

Marisa Kabas: This week, NBC News alleged that Fetterman “still struggles to understand what he hears and to speak clearly,” despite later noting that he only “occasionally stuttered” during the interview. After spending so much time with him and his family and his campaign recently, how did that sit with you?

Rebecca Traister: This summer he was in recovery from this stroke, and he was not making public appearances. He was not doing in-person fundraising, he was not at rallies, he was not doing interviews with journalists, which creates this period of big questions. Like, what is his level of communicative ability? The doctor said at the time that the stroke would not impair his cognitive ability, but he wasn't widely visible through June and July. And in that period, the campaign was hailed for running a really successful social media campaign—just absolutely tearing Dr. Oz apart, largely for living in New Jersey, not in Pennsylvania. And there was a lot of political media criticism that said what a genius campaign he was running.

I have to say, I entered the story assuming it was, like, a couple of kids on his digital communications team who were doing it. And it turns out—and this I think is related to these questions of health and communicative ability and cognitive presence—that when I started reporting, I was told by everyone that, in fact, the meme campaign originated with Fetterman himself in his period of stroke recovery. When he was all in his head thinking, he was thinking about the race, about messaging, about strategizing. 

The thing that's interesting to me is that, had he not appeared in public and not been doing rallies and not been doing interviews with the press—which is a conceivable scenario because the process of learning to communicate takes time after a stroke and relearning how to do some communication takes time—and there had been this drumbeat of “why aren't we knowing more about Fetterman’s health,” it would have been far more plausible to me. 

Marisa Kabas: How much of this uproar do you see as an attempt to jump-start the horse race in PA when Fetterman has been mostly enjoying a comfortable lead?

Rebecca Traister: The thing that is striking to me about the timing of this ramping up of [the message] “we need more information about John Fetterman’s health” was that it was happening concurrently with him becoming more and more visible. And that visibility included enormous transparency about his communicative challenges. 

Starting from mid-August when he did some initial public speaking events, he got hammered in ways that were perhaps cruel and unfair. But you could see the way that his syntax got snarled in some of the speeches that he gave, and there were clips being circulated very derisively around Labor Day of him appearing in a couple of events where he misspoke in several places. But that was all visible to the American public! He was open about needing to use closed captioning in the negotiations about whether or not he’d participate in a debate [with Oz]. His campaign was very clear that he required closed captioning as an accommodation so that he could engage in a debate, because auditory processing remained a challenge. So none of that was secret, none of that was being withheld from the public, which is why I found the intensifying calls for transparency so perplexing. 

And I was at a rally in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, about a week after Labor Day, and I was really struck by how much more easily he seemed to be able to to communicate than he had in those clips that had been from just a week ago. Then he gave a rally, I believe two weeks later, in Bethlehem, where he was appreciably better. You could see his improvement. You could see in the interviews he began doing— television interviews with Stephanie Ruhle, with Alex Wagner, with Chris Hayes—you could see him getting better at communication. So there was actually a very visible public, nationally televised view of his recuperation. 

The motivation coming from Oz and from a right wing media universe is very clear, and they're using all kinds of playbooks. I write in my piece about how a lot of this stuff is often deployed against candidates who are not big white men like John Fetterman. You know, all kinds of feminizing and infantilizing, language about his weakness, obsession over his weight.

Marisa Kabas: Do you think feminizing Fetterman was the Oz campaign’s way of being able to treat him as if he's not this big, straight white man?

Rebecca Traister: I don't know how conscious it was, or how just animal it was. Because as I write in the piece, the emasculating and racist messages that are just part of the ether exist because racism and sexism and homophobia are endlessly seductive communicative tools and weapons in our culture. 

There's kind of a myth that only women have their clothes, and their appearances, their bodies, their weight, their hair taken apart. And that's not true. Male politicians are often scrutinized for their bodies but here's how it's done, and I'll give you examples: Obama wearing “mom” jeans; John Edwards, candidate for president in 2008, was called the “Breck girl” [by Rush Limbaugh] because of his soft hair; John Kerry was alleged to have gotten Botox injections; Maureen Dowd once wrote about Al Gore that he was “practically lactating.” So the thing that you will find, whenever male candidates’ bodies or clothes get scrutiny, is that the scrutiny they get is feminizing. 

It’s interesting because even prior to a stroke, I would say that the fetishization of John Fetterman’s wardrobe has been a real thing. There are so many profiles I've read about Fetterman where they're like “he’s wearing shorts in January!” And I'm always like, wow this really is saying so much more about beltway Washington political reporters than about John Fetterman. Because it's like, you guys have never met a shorts guy before? 

Marisa Kabas: Do you think that Fetterman can flip the script and use his supposed “weakness” to connect with voters, and ultimately be successful?

Rebecca Traister: It's a very familiar trajectory that he’s on, but it's also very challenging. And it's especially challenging given the timing, because he had this stroke just at the start of the summer when he was entering a general election campaign for truly one of the most consequential elections in the country this fall. And so the timing is bad, but the trajectory should be very familiar to millions of Americans and matches medical expectations. And yet it is being so successfully leveraged by his opponent in ways that I think are really distorted and sad, with the help of mainstream press who, for some reason, seem to have some investment in furthering this idea that he's hiding something.

I know that he's connecting with voters. I mean, I can't tell you whether or not he's gonna be successful. And I think anybody who claims to know what's gonna happen in any of these races in the fall is not telling the truth. None of us know what’s gonna happen. But I can say, based on my own reporting, that the connection that people feel with him is real. I don't know how that will have an impact on who votes for him, or how many people vote for him, or who supports him. I can't speak to you with any predictive assurance, but it is absolutely observable that people are identifying with him. 

It's remarkable to see a candidate who says what he does in front of rallies of thousands of people: like, “there's somebody in this crowd who is probably filming me and hoping that I mush up two words or that I miss a word.” And then he does miss words. He does occasionally have trouble getting a word right. He has to try a couple of times. I described that in my own piece about him, and his willingness to do that in public, on television at these giant rallies. I think a lot of people ironically see that level of openness and of transparency as a signal of strength. So there's this pairing of openness and vulnerability. 

Marisa Kabas: Also, back to the point of accomodations for disability, we have the Americans with Disabilities Act! We can ask for a reasonable accommodation! So it's like, if this is the way people are reacting to something very standard, how must this feel for people with disabilities who are maybe considering running for office?

Rebecca Traiser: Exactly. And I mean, Franklin Roosevelt was our longest serving president. And you know, as many people have pointed out, he took great pains to ensure that the American public wasn't aware of his disability. And there are politicians with disabilities serving right now. So if this is the treatment of this accommodation—which is extremely common—it’s profoundly dispiriting [to people with disabilities]. Especially in the context of a pandemic universe, in which you have millions of people with health conditions coming out of a pandemic, where a lot of people are suffering from all kinds of pandemic associated health conditions that are perhaps long lasting. And where a lot of people have argued there is gonna be an ever-wider experience of disability. 

I find that the exoticization of this very typical form of accommodation and recuperative trajectory as worrisome or deceptive or drawing into question an individuals’ ability to serve is exclusionary, cruel, and flies in the face of science and medicine and what we know about the human condition and recuperative power, and the daily realities of living with disabilities and participating fully despite them. I find it incredibly dispiriting.

Marisa Kabas: This has sparked a really robust conversation about ableism in media and politics because of the subtitles and accommodations. And it's so weird because it feels like it's something people are reckoning with for like the first time despite decades of disability activism. And I was just curious like, how do you think we as writers can make sure that ableism isn't bleeding into our work?

Rebecca Traister: Like so many of the biases with which we are raised, it’s a constant project to spot them in our own unconscious. I had a colleague and a friend reach out to me this spring and critique the use of the word “lame” that I had used in this story totally unrelated to John Fetterman. But I had written a column in which I had said, in that kind of like 90s kids way, like “that's lame” or something. And somebody who I trust deeply was critical of my use of that word, and I'm super grateful. He was critical on Twitter, and then he and I had an exchange about it, and I told him I was extremely grateful for that correction. 

You know, there are all kinds of biases around ableism, and all of the stuff around race, gender, sexuality, that stuff is in us—we were raised with it, and there's no such thing as being free of bias. And so it’s a constant process of correction, discussion back and forth, trying to learn and listen. 

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