Why does our free press exist, if not to ask inconvenient and uncomfortable questions of the powerful?
In the case of the junior senator from Pennsylvania, our vaunted Fourth Estate simply is not up to the task.
On Sept. 17, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced that the sergeant-at-arms would no longer enforce the chamber’s dress code on the Senate floor.
“There has been an informal dress code that was enforced,” Schumer said in an announcement. “Senators are able to choose what they wear on the Senate floor. I will continue to wear a suit.”
Though the announcement does not mention Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) by name, the change appears to have been made with him in mind specifically. The freshman senator has refused to wear a suit and tie in the Senate building, including in the chamber, since May, when he was hospitalized briefly for what he said was clinical depression. Since his hospitalization, Fetterman has “unapologetically” worn shorts and hoodies around the Senate building “as he goes about his duties,” according to the AP.
Schumer’s announcement comes in spite of Fetterman already having a workaround for registering his votes without violating the chamber’s expectations of appropriate attire: Clad in a hoodie and shorts, he would simply stand in the doorway of the Democratic cloakroom or the side entrance, shout his “yay” or “nay” answer, and then disappear. And Fetterman’s preference to lob his vote through doorways comes on top of the fact that he’s the second-most absent member of the Senate, just behind the 90-year-old, wheelchair-bound Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Fetterman, who suffered a near-fatal stroke in 2022 and was hospitalized in 2023, is rarely present in the Senate. When he is present, he rarely if ever enters the chamber itself. He simply shouts his responses to the chair from a nearby doorway. And now, even with the shouting workaround, Senate leadership has adjusted the chamber’s longstanding dress code to accommodate Fetterman’s preference not to dress appropriately for the job for which he campaigned at the apparent expense of his health.
For Fetterman’s office, most especially whoever operates the senator’s Twitter account, the entire ordeal is a bit of a joke.
“If those jagoffs in the House stop trying to shut our government down,” the senator’s Twitter account declared this week, “and fully support Ukraine, then I will save democracy by wearing a suit on the Senate floor next week.”
In response to online grumbling, Fetterman aide Adam Jentleson also responded, “asking ‘why can’t john just do like everyone else’ fundamentally misunderstands john and his appeal while also accentuating it.”
This is insulting to everyone’s intelligence for at least three reasons.
First, Fetterman has cultivated a blue-collar image. But he 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.”
Second, despite what Jentleson and others suggest, working-class people understand the concept of “appropriate attire.” They don’t wear shorts to nice dinners.
Finally, pointing to Fetterman’s pretend blue-collar appeal still avoids the question: 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?
This final point especially calls into question the press’s coverage of the 2022 Pennsylvania Senate race.
Fetterman’s absence from the Senate isn’t the issue, nor is his dress, nor his cloakroom workaround. It’s that these things stand in such sharp contrast to how Fetterman was covered as a candidate, when the press assured voters that he was fit office. Now, we can’t get even a straight answer as to why the senator refuses to wear pants.
During the 2022 campaign, after Fetterman’s stroke, many in the media insisted that there was nothing to suggest he wouldn’t be up to the rigors of the office. They were clearly wrong.
Recall that NBC News journalist Dasha Burns was dragged over coals for breaking this unspoken embargo and commenting honestly in October of that year that “in small talk” before her interview with Fetterman, “it wasn’t clear he was understanding our conversation.”
Burns’s colleagues in the media, even within NBC, criticized her remarks, accusing her of everything from “ableism” to being just plain bad at making conversation. Fetterman, these Burns critics asserted, is perfectly fine.
Leading the charge was New York magazine editor-at-large Kara Swisher, who proclaimed: “Sorry to say but I talked to [Fetterman] for over an hour without stop or any aides and this is just nonsense. Maybe this reporter is just bad at small talk.”
Even after a debate in which Fetterman clearly struggled both to understand his opponent and to articulate himself, major newsrooms found new ways of running interference for him. Many of the same news organizations that had insisted the Democratic candidate was doing just fine quietly amended their coverage, now insisting after the debate that his mere presence on the campaign trail was an important milestone for disabled persons everywhere.
“Whatever voters ultimately decide at the polls,” noted the Washington Post in a post-debate report, “Fetterman’s performance marks something of a milestone for the disability community, which remains underrepresented at every level of elected office.”
Said the New York Times: “For many people with disabilities who watched the Pennsylvania Senate debate, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s performance against Dr. Mehmet Oz was both a sign of how far they had come in political representation and a reminder of how far they have left to go.”
Even Swisher was forced to scramble after Fetterman’s disastrous performance, searching out and sharing accommodating opinion articles, including one that argued the debate was a “Rorschach test of comfort with disability.” The post-debate article, which Swisher called the “best piece so far,” asserted, “We are a culture of soundbites, mic drops, and clap backs. To speak in any way that deviates from the norm is to summon ridicule and judgment.” Pick a lane, lady.
Pennsylvanians were explicitly promised during the campaign that Fetterman’s health condition would not hinder him from performing the usual duties of a senator. Recall that major news organizations were quick to cite Fetterman’s primary care physician, who published a statement in October claiming the Democratic candidate “has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office.”
Missing from much of this coverage was the fact that the doctor was also a Fetterman campaign donor.
Fetterman is the second-most absent member of the U.S. Senate. Now, the Senate has dropped its dress code to accommodate his preference for sneakers and baggy shorts, even after it had already tolerated his preference for shouting his votes from side rooms.
So, what part of “[he] has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office” is accurate? Does he really have “no work restrictions”? Can he work full duty? Because the way the Senate treats Fetterman, one cannot help but doubt the doctor’s assessment.
Is John Fetterman okay?
It’s a shame that so many journalists appear afraid to ask this and similar questions. They seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from their colleagues’ bullying of Dasha Burns. Because if anything falls under the header of “public interest,” it is surely the overall health and wellbeing of elected officials.
Becket Adams is a writer in Washington and program director for the National Journalism Center.
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