Abcarian: A speech-impaired John Fetterman is better than a fast-talking Mehmet Oz

FILE - Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a campaign event in York, Pa., Oct. 8, 2022. An NBC News correspondent who interviewed Fetterman said Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022 that her reporting should not be seen as commentary on his fitness for office after he suffered a stroke. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, file)
John Fetterman, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has had some difficulty speaking since his stroke in May. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
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Many unkind things were said about Democratic U.S. Senate candidate John Fetterman after the debate last week with his Republican opponent, Mehmet Oz.

Some pundits wondered whether the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor's uneven performance would hurt Democrats’ chances of maintaining control in the Senate, a fair question. Then there were the ghouls like Donald Trump Jr., who cruelly — and obnoxiously — tweeted that Fetterman seemed “brain dead.”

Five months out from a stroke that has affected his ability to put his thoughts into words, Fetterman at times spoke haltingly and in circles. Sometimes, he was perfectly articulate; other times, he struggled. Clearly, he was a man who had a serious brain injury.

His speech patterns were a stark contrast to those of Oz, the heart surgeon and celebrity TV doctor who sounds, by comparison, like a fast-talking salesman who sticks his foot in your door and refuses to leave till you buy a set of encyclopedias.

The thing about Fetterman, though, was that regardless of his difficulties, he had no trouble communicating what he believes: He supports the reproductive rights that were enshrined in Roe vs. Wade; he supports raising the minimum wage; and he now supports fracking, a politically fraught subject in Pennsylvania.

Funny enough, it was Oz who offered up a world-class example of the kind of poorly worded statement that can come back to bite you hard. Abortion, said Oz, “should be between women, doctors and local political leaders.” Democrats pounced.

(The comedian Amy Schumer reposted a darkly funny video of her asking her boss, his priest, a mailman, a Boy Scout, a kid playing chess in the park and her mom’s new boyfriend if it’s OK for her to get birth control.)

I give Fetterman credit for showing up on the debate stage at all, knowing that his expressive aphasia during such a high-pressure event would inevitably lead to stumbles.

But should the lingering effects of his stroke disqualify him from office? Of course not.

Would you rather be represented by a senator plodding along in what you believe is the right direction, or one who is racing the wrong way at top speed?

“The Senate is a deliberative body,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell. “Senators never have to make quick, irreversible decisions.”

In any case, noted O’Donnell, who once worked for New York’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, many political leaders have had catastrophic medical traumas and continued to work effectively for their constituents.

He pointed out, for example, the extraordinary medical woes of Winston Churchill, one of the world’s most accomplished statesmen. During his two stints as prime minister, Churchill had atrial fibrillation, multiple strokes and untold other ailments. His medical history, as a matter of fact, is the subject of a new book, “Winston Churchill’s Illnesses 1886-1965.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s polio and subsequent use of a wheelchair was hidden from the American people — and his voters — for many years.

President Kennedy, despite the appearance of vigor and good health, was sickly his entire life.

In 1954, two years into his Senate term, Kennedy underwent several unsuccessful back surgeries and developed an infection that put him in a coma and almost killed him. He also had a lifelong struggle with Addison’s disease. Overall, he was prematurely administered last rites four times.

In 1984, President Reagan fared so poorly in his first debate against his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, that people wondered if he was losing his marbles. He said afterward he hadn't known what city he was in at one point while discussing the country’s defense budget, and he talked about the high cost of the military’s “food and wardrobe.”

Later on, of course, Reagan was pretty obviously operating with a diminished capacity, although he wasn’t technically diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease until six years after he’d left office. I will never forget the clip of Nancy Reagan prompting her husband when he was taking reporters’ questions at their Santa Barbara ranch in 1984.

Dick Cheney was and is a medical mess. He had four heart attacks before he became vice president in 2001, including one while he was George W. Bush's running mate and the 2000 election results were still up in the air. In 2005, while in office, he had surgery for an aneurysm behind his knee.

Just this year, two Democratic U.S. senators, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, experienced strokes that kept them away from work while they recuperated.

The point is, like every other human being, politicians suffer from ailments and accidents. If they are healthy enough, they recuperate and stay on the job. Fetterman, to me, is healthy enough.

When control of the Senate hangs in the balance, as it does in November, it would be the height of self-defeating behavior for Democrats — or anyone repulsed by what the Republican Party has become — to vote for Oz or to sit this one out.

I have to say, I was kind of appalled recently when I heard former National Rifle Assn. pitch woman and rabidly antiabortion talk show host Dana Loesch declare it irrelevant that Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker, in a tight race with incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, has been accused of impregnating a woman and paying for her abortion.

“I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles,” declared Loesch. “I want control of the Senate.”

But she's right; those are the stakes.

So Pennsylvania, it's up to you: Will your next senator be a gritty stroke survivor who embraces Democratic principles and policies?

Or a slick-talking TV doctor who owes his political career to Donald Trump?


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.