When news broke last week that U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., had voluntarily checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to seek treatment for depression, it sent shockwaves through Washington and lit up the phones of political observers far beyond the Beltway’s borders — but not for the reasons you might think.
It wasn’t because Fetterman provides the Democrats with a crucial 51st vote in their razor-thin Senate majority. Yes, an extended absence could reduce the party’s margin for error in the chamber — but after two years of navigating a deadlocked Senate to pass several pieces of landmark legislation, temporarily returning to a 50-50 chamber (with Vice President Kamala Harris casting tie-breaking votes, as needed) should be no sweat for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
It also wasn’t because a recently elected, relatively young senator — at 53, Fetterman is more than a decade younger than the average lawmaker in the upper chamber — had landed in the hospital with a medical emergency. After all, Fetterman suffered a highly publicized stroke in May and his recovery from that near-fatal event became a topic of intense media scrutiny (and an avalanche of Republican attacks) during a bruising general election campaign last fall. The Pennsylvanian’s health challenges are, unfortunately, well-trod ground at this point.
And it wasn’t even because of the details of the situation itself. While depression may still carry a stigma in some quarters despite the best efforts of mental health advocates, bouts of depression are fairly common following a stroke, according to experts — so the fact that one of the most high profile stroke survivors in American politics is fighting the same aftereffects as his fellow survivors isn’t an earth-shattering revelation in its own right.
No, what was most shocking about Fetterman’s condition is that we were hearing about it at all.
As veteran political reporter Sam Stein pointed out at the time, “John Fetterman isn’t the first senator to suffer from depression. But he’s probably the first to publicly acknowledge he’s getting treatment for it.”
And therein lies the not-at-all-dirty (but still closely guarded) secret of American politics: the politicians who populate our halls of power are just as fragile and, dare we say it, human as anyone else. No matter how many times they appear on your television set or how many millions of votes they might win on Election Day, even the most powerful among us are people just like you and me — people with their own problems, dealing with their own pressures, grappling with their own very real challenges.
I know that might sound crazy. After all, if you’ve spent any time consuming one of the many popular television series set in our nation’s capital over the past two decades, you’ve been treated to a portrait of our elected leaders as power-hungry cyborgs who exist only to climb the political ladder at any cost, with little emotional life to speak of. When that is the dominant cultural narrative offered about those we send to Washington, it’s not hard to understand why this image has taken root in the minds of many.
However, in my experience, that portrait is little more than a caricature you might find on offer from a sketch artist at your local county fair. Sure, there are elements of truth present — one usually doesn’t find their way into national politics without possessing a considerable dose of ambition, after all — but so much of the picture is purposely exaggerated that it bears little resemblance to what the subject looks like in reality.
Anyone who has spent time with and around these leaders — as I have for the better part of the past 15 years — can tell you what grueling, often thankless work holding elected office can be. It’s a job that demands incredibly long hours, a brutal travel schedule and prolonged separation from family, friends and loved ones.
And what do you get for those sacrifices? You get to face a hurricane-level barrage of criticism for virtually every decision you make, and then wash that down with an endless string of phone calls where you grovel for campaign donations as you scramble to meet a fundraising deadline that never actually seems to pass because there’s somehow always another one.
And that’s before we even get to an election year — that happy time when your competitors spend millions of dollars (hence all that fundraising!) dragging your name through the mud, right before hundreds of thousands of strangers get to decide whether or not to publicly fire you, which would be embarrassing enough in its own right if it didn’t also threaten your family’s livelihood.
Oh, and sometimes you also get death threats.
Does that sound glamorous and fun? I guess there’s a reason they don’t show those parts of the job on TV.
Needless to say, this isn’t your average 9-to-5 gig. It’s an exceptionally tough job. And yes, it’s a job that each and every one of our elected representatives chose to do, but it’s also one that our country literally can’t function without. Somebody has to sign up to place themselves in that professional pressure cooker, volunteering to be perpetually squeezed on all sides from long before dawn until far past dusk. So I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sometimes all that weight can produce a few cracks in one’s personal foundation — physically, emotionally, spiritually and yes, psychologically.
To be sure, Fetterman is relatively new to the bright lights of federal politics. He has spent months serving in Congress at this point, not years. But having previously served as the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and, before that, as a small-town mayor, the price of public service is something he’s undoubtedly intimately familiar with. And while the spotlight does inevitably grow hotter when you step onto the national stage, it merely magnifies the same stressors that exist for most elected officials across the country.
Whether you work in your local city hall or the White House or somewhere in between, this is a business where success is often predicated on maintaining appearances and never showing what some might perceive as “weakness,” which is why the public rarely gets to see the private impact of a life in politics.
That’s what makes Fetterman’s disclosure of his own mental health struggles so extraordinary — he opened the book on a battle that, as Stein pointed out, many politicians before him have waged in solitary silence. By doing so, he opens the door to more leaders of both parties following in his footsteps in the future.
So whatever our political allegiances may be, I hope we can collectively meet this moment with an outpouring of empathy and an increased attempt at understanding. Because even if we may not agree on everything — or let’s be honest, basically anything — maybe we can all still agree that our better angels call on us to extend an added measure of grace to people dealing with their darkest hours.
And despite what you may have heard, politicians are people too.
Steve Pierce, a contributing writer for Deseret, is a Democratic strategist and communications consultant who advises campaigns, causes and brands on matters of message and strategy. He currently works as a senior director at Bully Pulpit Interactive — a communications firm based in Washington, D.C. — and previously held roles with Priorities USA, Hillary For America and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, among others.