In September 2022, I staked out John Fetterman’s home, just east of Pittsburgh.
Fetterman was running for Senate, and I thought I might find him in the industrial-style loft he shares with his wife, Gisele, and their three kids, in a renovated car dealership across the street from the husk of a steel works.
I thought I knew exactly who Fetterman was: a lie—a rich kid pretending to be a working-class stiff. (This was hardly a secret. Everyone knew Fetterman, who made $150 a month when he was mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, from 2006 to 2019, was getting help from his parents—into his late forties.)
Anyway, no one was home or showed up, and the campaign refused to make the candidate available.
I assumed he was hiding—didn’t want to let on how much damage his stroke had done to his mind or body, didn’t want anyone peering too closely at his carefully curated cartoon image of a down-to-earth Rust Belt Democrat. The hoodie, the tats, even the hunkering six-feet-eight-inches frame and the semipermanent scowl seemed too stilted and staged, like a caricature, a little too Eminem. It felt like a sham, and the best that could be said of Fetterman was he was someone else’s puppet.
I was wrong.
I mean totally, indefensibly, unbelievably wrong.
In the past two months, since Hamas attacked Israel, the Democratic now–junior senator from Pennsylvania has pulled off something that few, if any, of those at the highest echelons of the national power structure are capable of: he surprised everyone.
He has done this by rising above the crassness and confusion of the mob—by stating plainly that which should be clear; by staking out a moral turf; by refusing to buckle.
“I forcefully condemn these cowardly, horrifying, unprovoked attacks on Israel by Hamas,” Fetterman tweeted October 7, as Israeli troops were still battling the terrorists. “Attacking innocent civilians is particularly despicable and reflects the craven behavior of this terrorist group. I unequivocally stand with the people of Israel now, and always.”
This was before the president of the United States weighed in. Before Barack Obama made his embarrassing and pathetic comments about how complicated it all was.
Then, on October 17, there was the blast at a Gaza hospital. The progressive universe, including Democratic House members Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and The New York Times and The Washington Post, immediately blamed Israel. Their only source was the Gaza Ministry of Health, a.k.a. Hamas, and Fetterman (rightly) called them out: “It’s truly disturbing that Members of Congress rushed to blame Israel for the hospital tragedy in Gaza,” he tweeted. “Who would take the word of a group that just massacred innocent Israeli civilians over our key ally?”
Then, in late October, as if in defiance of the poster-defacers, the liars, those trying to rewrite history as it was still being written, he plastered the posters with the names and faces of the roughly 240 hostages being held by Hamas outside his Senate office.
Then, on November 20, he reiterated his demand that Hamas release the hostages immediately, and insisted that military aid to Israel not come with any conditions. “For peace & a 2-state solution, Hamas must be destroyed & I fully support Israel’s right to do that,” Fetterman tweeted. By then, Joe Biden had taken an 11-point hit among Democrats for standing behind the Jewish state, and progressives on Capitol Hill were demanding a cease-fire, and John Fetterman seemed like he couldn’t care less.
On December 1, the senator went on morning talk show The View to say: “I believe that Israel has the right, but I also think it has the imperative, to destroy Hamas.”
Bear in mind that none of these things—railing against the murder of women and children, demanding the release of noncombatant hostages, ridiculing politicians for trusting a terrorist organization—would normally be all that remarkable.
But we find ourselves in a strange, awful moment consumed by obfuscation and duplicity, a moment in which many of those in charge have a seemingly impossible time stating obvious truths like one should not behead babies; intentionally killing noncombatants is worse than accidentally killing them; and so forth.
We have become so overwhelmed by uncertainty, so incapacitated by our moral relativism, that we’ve been rendered mostly impotent. Incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, or defending our values. Or forgetting what those values were in the first place.
Then, unexpectedly, along comes John Fetterman, who was supposed to be a ruse, a sleight of hand manufactured by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, but who turns out to be his own man.
I have no idea where this comes from. He’s not Jewish. He grew up, as most everyone knows, in an affluent family in York, in south central Pennsylvania, and he studied finance at Albright College, earned an MBA at the University of Connecticut, and was on track to become his father—an executive in the insurance industry.
But then he did something that, in retrospect, looks like foreshadowing: he left all that and became an organizer and the mayor of a dilapidated, ex-steel town. He surprised everyone.
In the fall of 2022, at the height of the Senate campaign, it looked opportunistic, and it may have been that at the time. He made it clear on the campaign trail that he was a friend of Israel, which wasn’t surprising: there are 434,000 Jews in Pennsylvania, almost all of them in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and supporting Israel plays well with the Republicans and evangelicals in the interior of the state. It’s smart electoral politics.
But in the wake of the Hamas attack, it would have been smarter to have gone along, equivocated, embraced a fuzzier patois, one that different constituencies could interpret differently. But he took a straighter, clearer path.
He will, of course, pay for this somehow. Progressives will not forgive him for defending the “colonial-settler state.” Former campaign staffers haven’t. In October, they wrote an open letter to Fetterman criticizing him for supporting the “collective punishment” of Palestinians.
“You can’t be a champion of forgotten communities if you cheerlead this war,” the letter declared.
When Fetterman’s term is up in 2028, it’s possible that the left wing of his party will try to primary him out of office. A primary would deplete his war chest, and it would leave him more vulnerable in the general. He definitely wouldn’t be a Democratic celebrity like he was in 2022.
But apparently the new senator from Pennsylvania doesn’t care about that. He appears to care about something else, something that will extend far beyond John Fetterman and his tenure in the United States Senate: the principle of self-determination. For all of his faux-thuggishness, there is, about Fetterman, an insistence on truth and integrity.
“They could be protesting Hamas,” he tweeted December 4, after demonstrators massed outside an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia. “They could be protesting Hamas’ systematic rape of Israeli women and girls or demanding the remaining hostages be immediately released. Instead, they targeted a Jewish restaurant. It’s pathetic and rank antisemitism.”
I wish more of our leaders would be so surprising.
Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @petersavodnik.
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