The critically important Pennsylvania Senate race between Lt. Governor John Fetterman and TV celebrity Mehmet Oz – whom Oprah Winfrey used to call “America’s Doctor – is too close to call.
Winfrey gave Oz his big break. He made scores of appearances on her show, then got a TV gig of his own. In the process, he made a fortune from peddling quack medicines, so much so that he has been able to put $22 million of his own money into the campaign to defeat his Democratic opponent. In May, Columbia University pulled Oz’s personal page from its website due to Oz’s disregard for science and evidence-based medicine, his lack of integrity and conflicts of interest, and his embrace of sham cures. Previously, Oz had been forced to acknowledge in a Senate hearing that the diet pills he was pushing “don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.”
Oprah’s only statement on Oz’s candidacy was in December, 2021 in which she noncommittally said that the wonder of our democracy is that just about anyone can decide to run for public office, even for U.S. Senator. “And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them,” she added. Oz immediately responded that he had asked her not to endorse him and to stay out of the race- because, he said, if she got involved, she’d get hurt, and he didn’t want his friends to get hurt. She has stayed silent since.
That was ten months ago. Since then, Fetterman’s lead over Oz has dwindled to within the margin of error. The fate of the U.S. Senate and, one could argue, the health of our democracy, could hang in the balance. Oprah’s celebrity brand makes her a powerful opinion leader with personal knowledge of the Trump-endorsed candidate. Isn’t this the time for her to spend a little of her personal capital by speaking out about this race, just as she did in previous elections in support of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?
Oz’s Democratic opponent, Fetterman, is recovering from a stroke. He had a tough time in last night’s rapid-fire debate with Oz. He’s still working on his tendency to, as he put it, “must two words together.” His verbal tics and lack of stamina have prompted some derision from Oz and his supporters, and even some concern from Democrats. Hardly a sensitive attitude during the month of October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month, celebrating the accomplishments of disabled employees in the workplace! The New Yorker has a wonderful piece about ableism, our bias against those with any disability, shocking given how nearly a third of the electorate has a disability or lives with someone who does.
Fetterman’s doctor, Dr. Ramesh Chandra, has written that he is perfectly capable of carrying out the duties of the office. But Dr. Oz, of all people, should know not to mock someone with a disability. Apparently, the cane with which Fetterman walks is a temporary support. Allowing him to have notes before him in a debate was simply what the ADA community and many statutes describe as reasonable accommodation. There are myriad examples of successful public service, including by Presidents, despite health challenges.
In a 50-50 Senate, picking up an open seat from a retiring GOP incumbent is vital to preserving at least partial control of Congress. If he wins, Trump-endorsed Oz would likely be part of the slimy wing of MAGA nation, making pernicious mischief, doing real damage and paving the way for the return of the disgraced former president.
On the issue of abortion, Oz did not support Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill for a federal ban but insisted it should be decided in the states, by “women, doctors, and local political leaders.” Do you want your state rep or senator in the examining room with your doctor and you?
Oz has been mocked as a carpetbagger with a primary New Jersey residence, but shouldn’t we be more concerned about the policy implications of his ties to Turkey? He says that, if elected, he’ll renounce his Turkish citizenship, but dual citizenship, an honorable tradition, is not the issue. Turkey is a strange and uncertain ally of the United States. It’s now allowing the yachts of Russian oligarchs to berth safely in Turkish ports and has helped Russia avoid sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine. As a candidate, Oz has not decried Turkish President Erdogan’s behavior, and won’t even acknowledge the Armenian genocide, when in 1915-17 the Ottoman Empire killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians.
AG Merrick Garland yesterday warned about foreign countries exerting unlawful influence on the United States. As a Senator, Oz could do more damage to US interests than did Trump’s short-lived national security advisor General Michael Flynn, as an unregistered Turkish lobbyist.
I don’t join with those faulting Oprah for helping to launch the celebrity career of Dr. Mehmet Oz. But I do believe she should speak out forcefully now against his Senate candidacy. In a race this close, her unequivocal public endorsement of John Fetterman could be decisive.