It’s been an unusual first six months in Congress for Senator John Fetterman, the 6-foot-8, tattooed Democrat from Pennsylvania, who moved to Washington in January after suffering a near-fatal stroke on the campaign trail last year and going on to win one of the most competitive seats in the midterm elections.
Mr. Fetterman arrived on Capitol Hill, signature hoodie and all, as a figure of fascination. For months, though, he kept colleagues and reporters at an arm’s length as he labored to cope with auditory processing issues that are an ongoing side effect of his stroke and debilitating depression that he now says prompted him to consider harming himself.
He was treated for clinical depression at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center earlier this year, and his six-week stay there placed him at the center of a national conversation about mental health, a role he wasn’t always certain he wanted to fill.
But in recent weeks, Mr. Fetterman has been adjusting to a more normal life for a lawmaker. Using a tablet that transcribes voice to text, he has started taking questions from reporters in the hallways, a staple of a senator’s life in Washington, and has begun inviting reporters into his office for informal off-the-record chats. He won approval last week of his first legislative proposal, an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, which he wrote with Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, to ban the sale of strategic petroleum reserves to foreign adversaries.
This week, he sat down for an interview with The New York Times in which he spoke candidly (and sometimes profanely) about an array of topics, including his view that Congress is fixated on pointless fights, stumbling at times over his words — and noting that his political adversaries were likely to attack him for it. He also spoke emotionally about the toll his new job has taken on his family.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve now been in Congress for just over six months. What is your overall impression of how the place functions?
There’s a fixation on a lot of dumb shit. Bad performance art is really what it gets down to. The debt ceiling — there should have been no drama with any of that. The fact that we’re playing with something like that is antithetical to the stability of our democracy. It really is. Everything is turning into a culture war. Not everything has to be a think piece, you know.
Does all of that political posturing make you cynical about Washington?
Everyone here is cynical, of course. But we can fight for things that are meaningful. That we should have no hungry. Hanger. Hangry. Hanger. Hangry.
Fox News will go crazy if that makes your story.
We’re fighting for women’s reproductive freedom, making sure we have resources and support our unions. I’m going to fight for what’s really important.
You’ve introduced legislation to expand access to contraception, with more than a dozen Democratic co-sponsors. Is there any Republican support for that in the Senate?
It’s going to be very hard. Somebody needs to tell Republicans, like in a memo, ‘You won on abortion. You won. Why not have a serious conversation about birth control? That’s less abortions and unwanted children.’ I wish we could have an honest conversation with conservatives and Republicans that birth control is the answer for both sides. But there wouldn’t be 60 votes in the Senate for that. I still really want to keep pushing it. I want to have that conversation.
Pennsylvania is going to be critical in the 2024 presidential election. You’ll be seeing a lot of President Biden. Are you at all concerned about his age?
I’m not concerned about his age. And even if I was, who cares? There’s nothing you can do about his age. I’ve spent enough time around him. He’s sharp, he’s aware, he is absolutely up to the task. I’ll be doing whatever his campaign asks of me. I know Pennsylvania, I’ve won Pennsylvania. I’ll be helping with whatever he asks.
Is it difficult to keep talking about your own struggles with mental health, or do you enjoy the responsibility of that new role?
It’s a burden, but a privilege, too, to talk about it. It’s also an opportunity to be very bipartisan. Red or blue, if you have depression, get help, please. Don’t ever, ever, ever harm yourself. Do not leave behind a blueprint of that.
In my own situation, in my very lowest, I started thinking about that. And I realized that if I do harm myself, I will leave behind for my children a blueprint that, if something happens with you, that’s the answer. I can’t do that to anyone.
Even before you checked yourself into Walter Reed for treatment for depression, you were a figure of fascination on Capitol Hill. Other senators would even stop you for selfies. Why is there so much interest in you?
I don’t know; it doesn’t make any sense to me at all. I don’t get it. I’ll never understand it. I don’t know why my wife married me. In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character says something like, ‘You think I’m arrogant? No, I don’t even like me.’ That’s me. I don’t even like me. That’s the truth.
You’re living alone in Washington, separated for most of the week from your three kids and your wife, who still live in Braddock, Pa.
It’s awful. In the last week or two, I came across a quote by Kevin Costner talking about his divorce. He said, it hits you that you’re going to be spending 50 percent less time with the people you love the most.
You realize when you become a senator, you’re going to be spending 50 percent less time with the people that you love. That breaks my heart. I get emotional thinking about it. FaceTime is much better than just a phone call, but that’s the worst part of the job.
Six years is a long term. Would you consider moving your family to Washington for a sustainable work-life balance?
No, that would be disrupting their lives. I can’t do that to them. It hurts. For example, my wife texted me about an hour ago that our three kids got great checkups. It’s parenting by text. I miss them a lot.
Do you think David McCormick, the businessman who lost the Republican nomination to Dr. Oz in your Senate race, will run against Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania next year?
If he was serious, he would have gotten in last January. And now it’s just really late. And there’s no anger focusing on Bob Casey. I’m supremely confident that Bob Casey is going to win. He is a buzz saw for some Republican who thinks they can hotdog it. He just keeps getting re-elected.
Do you think the multiple indictments of former President Donald J. Trump will hurt him politically in your state?
It doesn’t matter. I’m a senator, and I’m not sure how many times he’s been indicted. He’s been impeached twice. Has that changed anything? You’re still seeing Trump signs everywhere in Pennsylvania. You have to respect his strength in all of that. Trump would be very competitive in Pennsylvania. But Trump has to perform above his ceiling. I think there’s a hard ceiling in Pennsylvania he can’t get past.
Ever think about dropping the sweatshirt-and-shorts uniform and just wearing a suit in Congress?
You want to talk about joy? It was a eureka moment when I figured out I don’t have to be in a suit to stand at the threshold of the Senate chamber, going “yea” or “nay,” and it was amazing. I’ve been able to reduce my suit time by about 75 percent.