I must have watched a few whole episodes of “The Dr. Oz Show” when I wrote a long profile of Mehmet Oz for The Times Magazine back in 2010, but afterward? Please. I’m a glutton, but not for punishment, and the snippets of the show that I’d happen upon convinced me that snippets sufficed. Oz was more huckster than healer, more showman than shaman, grinning dopily as he sacrificed his integrity on the altar of ratings. I encountered enough Faustian parables of that ilk as a journalist covering politics. I didn’t need them in my daytime television.
But I’m enthralled by Oz’s newest production, by which I mean his campaign for the Senate. It may be my favorite Senate race ever.
By “favorite” I don’t mean that it inspires me, at least not to anything but disputably clever prose. I mean that it has such a surfeit of unlikely details, such a concentration of modern political themes.
Such enormous stakes, too. While Republicans are very likely to win back the House in November 2022, thanks to the normal midterm pendulum swing and voters’ profound economic anxiety, Democrats have a real chance to hold on to the Senate, and their fate probably rests on a few key contests, including the one in Pennsylvania between Oz, the Republican nominee, and John Fetterman, his Democratic rival. They’re vying for the seat being vacated by Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican who’s retiring.
You couldn’t script a matchup like this. Oz, an accomplished surgeon, has spent decades enshrining himself as a trim, taut, manically energetic paradigm of peak health; I sometimes look at him and just see a big bowl of leafy greens and ancient grains dressed with low-fat yogurt. I look at Fetterman and see a sausage pizza. (I think I mean that as a compliment.)
Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, suffered a stroke just days before the Democratic primary in May and spent the next two months off the campaign trail, in recovery. He said recently that his hearing still isn’t what it used to be. He also disclosed that he’d been diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in 2017 but hadn’t faithfully taken his prescribed medication or even returned to the doctor over the next five years.
So it’s the health truant versus the health tyrant.
But it’s also the television wizard versus the Twitter wiseacre. Oz knows how to woo and wow a small-screen audience, but, as the subhead of an excellent recent article by Matthew Cantor in The Guardian noted, Fetterman “is wielding social media might against star power.”
The Fetterman campaign operates in extreme meme mode, trolling Oz in particular for being a New Jerseyan in unpersuasive Pennsylvania drag. It deconstructed the décor in an Oz campaign video to show that he was speaking from a room in his New Jersey manse. It hired the “Jersey Shore” star Nicole (Snooki) Polizzi to beckon Oz home in a video clip that got more than three million views on Twitter.
It followed that inspired mischief with a video in which another recognizable ambassador for New Jersey — the guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who plays in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and had a role in “The Sopranos” — cautions Oz about his Pennsylvania misadventure.
But the most devastating recent Oz taunt came from outside the Fetterman campaign, in the form of an ad that documented the doctor’s recurring promotion of bogus miracle cures and used footage from “The Wizard of Oz” to shame him for it. Dorothy, Toto and the gang never performed a nobler service.
Oz is off. He responded to the sneak Snooki attack with a cringe-inducing game of famous-acquaintance one-upmanship. “She’s been on my show,” he told Dom Giordano, a Philadelphia talk-radio host. “I know all these celebrities. I could actually have celebrities do my campaign for me.”
Take that, John Fetterman! You may have a consistent political ideology. Oz has been to the Emmys.
Therein lies a Republican predicament. With Oz in Pennsylvania, Herschel Walker in Georgia and, to a lesser extent, J.D. Vance in Ohio, the party has nominated Senate candidates whose star statuses aren’t paired with comparable political acumen and whose flaws or fumbles have given their Democratic counterparts a better chance than they might have had against more experienced, more traditional candidates.
Fame is funny that way. It can be redeemed for many things but not for everything. And the blessing of Donald Trump — which Oz, Vance and Walker all received — is funny, too. It giveth in the primary only to taketh away in the general, or at least (fingers crossed) that’s a distinct possibility.
Despite Fetterman’s stroke and convalescence, he has been raising much more money than Oz has. He was more than five points ahead of Oz in two June polls. The National Review columnist Jim Geraghty called Oz “the wildly underperforming Ford Pinto of Republican Senate candidates.”
Not even a Tesla in vain search of a charging station? Whatever the beleaguered vehicle’s make and model, I can’t take my eyes off this car wreck.
For the Love of Sentences
Perhaps the most nominated sentence of the week was by a Times critic who appears frequently in this feature, James Poniewozik, about how quickly social media accounts screen-grabbed and mocked new images of Senator Josh Hawley fleeing the Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot: “To paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, it was the continuation of politics by other memes.” (Thanks to David Carlyon of Manhattan and Keith Herrmann of Raleigh, N.C., among others, for drawing attention to this.)
Monica Hesse, in The Washington Post, weighed in on what Liz Cheney, the vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee, had been through: “Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) reportedly said that Cheney’s failure to support Trump after the insurrection was like looking up in the stands to ‘see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side.’ The sexism was breathtaking: The idea that the third-highest ranking Republican in the House would be thought of not as a senior member of the party but as a groupie whose loyalty could be thrown on and off like a letterman jacket.” (Phil Carlsen, South Portland, Maine)
Also in The Post, Matt Bai questioned the praise for the former Trump aides Sarah Matthews and Matthew Pottinger: “If we have Matthews and Pottinger to thank for airing the truth about Trump’s final days, then we have them to thank for that legacy, too.” (Mark Van Loon, Hamilton, Mont.)
And Paul Schwartzman had fun analyzing the uncertain fortunes of Representative Jerry Nadler of New York: “Nadler’s Jewishness has taken on new importance since redistricting has left him in a pickle.” (Michael Schooler, Washington, D.C.)
Stepping back to marvel at what has become of Republicans in the Trump era, Tom Nichols wrote in his newsletter in The Atlantic: “In the Before Times, we still argued over politics instead of whether communist Muslims had taken over our Venezuelan voting machines with help from the Italian space program.” (Jim Price, Oak Park, Ill.)
Taking stock from a different vantage point, Gail Collins wrote in The Times: “Donald Trump got elected president and those of us who make fun of politicians for a living moved into a land of perpetual opportunity.” (Steve Cohen, Reston, Va.)
Moving away from politics — because who doesn’t want to? — Joshua Sokol pondered the amazing recent photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope in the context of the revelatory, epochal pictures from space telescopes past: “Will anything land as hard as the Apollo shots? Or the Hubble pics, plastered on science classroom walls and aped by everyone from Terrence Malick to the ‘Thor’ movies? We’ll see. But for now, at least, the tap is open, and the universe is pouring in.” (Harry Schaefer, Silver Spring, Md.)
In The Times, J. Kenji López-Alt rhapsodized about the various deployments of onions in a burger suffused with them, including “gnarled, nearly burned shreds that frizzle out of the burger’s edges the way my daughter draws hair with crayons.” (Jeannie Ianelli, Seattle)
Alexis Soloski profiled Neil Patrick Harris: “His personality is fizz and bounce, with just a touch of guile. He tends to look like he is up to something. Something fun.” (Katie Baer, Pittsboro, N.C.)
And in The Los Angeles Times, the theater critic Charles McNulty wrote: “If the Cheesecake Factory were a musical, it would no doubt look and sound much like ‘Moulin Rouge.’ The temptations are obvious, the portions huge and the goal is satiety to point of button-popping exhaustion.” (Robert Potter, Los Angeles)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.
I’ve marveled in past newsletters at the crazy variety of positions in which my beloved Regan sleeps. Almost as confounding is the variety of places where she sleeps. I can find no rhyme, reason or pattern to her choices, many of which seem to fly in the face of comfort.
Here she is below the dining room table. Does she imagine herself in some wolf’s den — some cave? There’s a couch upstairs that she likes to put half, but only half, of her body under. And one night out of every 100, she departs from her usual habit of jumping onto my bed and instead flattens herself and crawls all the way beneath it. The space there is so tight that I once had to pull her out of it in the morning.
She seemed strangely unfazed. And characteristically well rested.
On a Personal Note
Is the real Glenn Thompson the congressman who voted against marriage equality last week or the father who, three days later, attended his gay son’s wedding to another man and gave a loving speech about how happy he was for the couple?
Friends keep asking me that, as if being gay and writing about politics affords me some special insight. Nope. I have only the same curiosity and pique that so many others do. I have questions. I have observations.
Thompson is a Republican who represents a conservative Pennsylvania district. He joined 156 other House Republicans — the overwhelming majority of them — in voting no on a bill that Democrats had put forward to codify same-sex marriage and interracial marriage into law before the Supreme Court could potentially revisit the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The bill passed anyway.
I guarantee you that there were opposing votes in addition to Thompson’s by Republicans with gay relatives and friends whom they otherwise support. But in a testament to the human talents for compartmentalization and rationalization, those Republicans performed a mental split of public and private, of professional and personal, that permitted them to vote in violation of cherished relationships.
I suppose some of them believe that you can fully embrace a gay person without endorsing that person’s right to marry, but that’s a feat of moral needle-threading well beyond my ken. Others probably reasoned that they had to vote as they did to save their jobs or to safeguard other priorities. Life is indeed all about trade-offs.
But how do you trade away your own son’s dignity? And what do you say to him after you’ve done so, or when he’s cutting his wedding cake?
Thompson’s son hasn’t really spoken out. Neither has Thompson’s son-in-law. Maybe that reflects an impressive capacity for forgiveness and grace. Maybe the young men are just focused, for now, on honeymooning.
Or maybe they try to look at the bright side. There’s indeed a bright side here: In an era of profound partisanship, 47 House Republicans joined 220 House Democrats to support the marriage equality bill, and there’s a definite chance that it can garner just enough Republican support in the Senate to prevent a filibuster. That speaks to how much progress has been made on the gay-rights front over recent decades and how much the country has changed.
It doesn’t erase my concerns about many Republicans’ resurgent vilification of gay people, slandered as “groomers” by a hateful contingent within the party. But it suggests a strain of understanding, a ray of enlightenment. That consoles me somewhat. I hope it consoles Thompson’s son, too.