Comity in the Senate

Every once in a blue moon, a glimpse of humanity can be seen.

The AP report “Back in hoodies and gym shorts, Fetterman tackles Senate life after depression treatment” begins as the headline suggests, with a discussion of Pennsylvania Senator John Fetterman’s unusual-for-the-office sartorial choices. It quickly turns into something else: a discussion of what one might call “common decency” if it weren’t so uncommon in modern U.S. politics.

People close to Fetterman say his relaxed, comfortable style is a sign that the senator is making a robust recovery after six weeks of inpatient treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where his clinical depression was treated with medication and he was fitted for hearing aids for hearing loss that had made it harder for him to communicate. His hospitalization came less than a year after he had a stroke during his Senate campaign that he has said nearly killed him, and from which he continues to recover.

“He’s setting a new dress code,” jokes Vermont Sen. Peter Welch, who is the only other first-term Democrat in the Senate and spent a lot of time with Fetterman during their orientation at the beginning of the year. “He was struggling. And now he’s a joyful person to be around.”


Welch said Fetterman was quiet and withdrawn when he first came to Washington, and often sat in the back of closed-door caucus meetings. Now he’s standing up and talking, sometimes joking and ribbing Pennsylvania’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey.

Fetterman, Welch and Republican Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama became friends at the orientation, and those two colleagues stayed close with him through his recovery. Britt says that in those early days, Fetterman would only really engage if she started the conversation, but they bonded over having children of a similar age and the fact that Britt’s former football player husband, Wesley, is the same height as the Pennsylvania senator. When Fetterman checked into the hospital, Britt’s staff brought food to his office next door.

Britt later visited him at Walter Reed, at his request, and found Fetterman to be totally changed. “When I walked in that day, his energy and demeanor was totally different,” Britt said in an interview.

Now, he’s loud and outgoing, she says -– even yelling “Alabama!” at her down a hallway when he caught sight of her last week, giving her fist bumps and asking about her husband and family.

“That shows you the difference that treatment can make,” Britt says. “It’s just incredible to see.”

Fetterman’s decision to seek treatment won bipartisan praise from his colleagues, a sharp turn from his bruising Senate race against Republican Mehmet Oz that was the most expensive in the country.


Welch is hosting Fetterman and Britt at his house for dinner soon. Fetterman is “on his game” these days, Welch said.

Another Democratic colleague, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, said she noticed that Fetterman was “inwardly focused” when he arrived in Washington. But he’s now gregarious and cracking jokes.

“It’s really, really great to see, it’s a good message to send to people to seek help,” Duckworth said. “It makes a difference.”

I’m not a fan of Fetterman’s outfits. But he seems like a decent guy trying to do good for his constituents. That at least one of his Republican colleagues—from my erstwhile home state of Alabama, no less—has developed a personal bond with him notwithstanding policy disagreements shouldn’t be the least bit remarkable. But it seems worth remarking on, nonetheless.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kylopod says:

    from my erstwhile home state of Alabama, no less

    Well, you know the old James Carville quip about how PA is Pittsburgh and Philly with Alabama in between.

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    There was a time when cross aisle friendships were common in the Senate, Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy were best of friends as were Pete Domenici and Paul Wellstone, who bonded over having relatives with chronic mental illness and found a variety of other issues that they could cooperate on.

    The Senate was a better place in those days and here’s hoping that common interest can be rediscovered.

  3. Steve says:

    Serious question though may sound snarky. Does Britt face pressure in primary for friending a Dem?


  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Fetterman dresses the way he does because the only alternative for a guy that size is bespoke suits, and we don’t pay Senators enough for bespoke suits. I’m just 6’2″, 210, with size 13 shoes and until the arrival of the internet I had a hell of a time dressing. There are like three brands of shoes that come in wide sizes. Search for ‘tall’ sizes and watch the options disappear.

  5. Gustopher says:

    I absolutely admire Fetterman for being so public about his treatment for depression — it helps reduce the stigma of mental illness, and helps make it clear that mental illness is often treatable.

    And Mr. Reynolds is largely correct about the clothes. At 6’5”, finding clothes is hard. At Fetterman’s 6’8”? Oof. There’s a reason tall people dress badly.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Gustopher: Fair point. I’m just under 6’2″, 230 pounds (should be 190 but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), and wear size 13 shoes. Not as hard as it once was and, indeed, I’ve largely gone made to measure on suits the last decade-plus simply because it’s no longer that expensive and I’m picky on style and fit.

  7. CSK says:

    Well, clearly Fetterman found one suit that fit him, since he’s wearing it in this picture.

  8. Thomm says:

    @Michael Reynolds: @Gustopher: Or, it could be he is from western PA. That is the unofficial uniform of yinzers (Pittsburghers for those who need clarification).

  9. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: He’s required to wear one on the floor, as he was as Lt Gov, and accedes to the rule. The hoodies and such as performance art.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: (should be 190 but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯),


  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: The hoodies and such as performance art.

    Or maybe, just maybe, they are more comfortable??? Seriously James, put me in a monkey suit and I am ready to rip somebody’s head off and shit down the hole. You definitely need to get out of your comfort zone. The world is not made for you.

  12. Thomm says:

    @James Joyner: Go to western PA sometime anytime but midsummer, even in the middle of January and February…you will see many people wearing what he does. For you to call it,”performance art” shows the insular hellscape that is the NOVA region. BTW, your adherence to, “traditional” professor’s garb is more performance art than just wearing what many from someone’s region would consider normal.

  13. Jen says:

    “Performance art”

    Or, a man who has difficulty finding his size who has been going through medical hell for the past few years, and whose focus was (correctly) on getting healthy and not fashion.

    Let’s give the man some space.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Jen: He’s been dressing like that his whole political career, I gather—going back to his days as mayor.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: @Thomm: Again, I get that most people like to dress for comfort and don’t disagree that longstanding professional dress norms are less comfortable than gym clothes. Why, I take my suit off when I get home and usually take off my necktie as I drive home. At the same time, I think meeting social expectations demonstrates respect for the occasion and for others. Fetterman has the luxury of flouting the Senate dress code that lowly staffers do not.

  16. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: Well, sure–but my guess is that it didn’t matter as much then. I’m thinking of the kids we had who would intern at the Capitol when they were in college, versus when they’d be hired as legislative aides, versus when they’d eventually end up in lobbying.

    In the first two instances, what they wore mattered but everyone knew that they were on a budget and that “office clothes” were not going to dominate their wardrobe as a student, but they’d start moving that direction once hired. Context, timing, and budget all matter. Fetterman might be expected to dress better now that he’s in the Big Leagues, but Sinema wears bonkers outfits, and she clearly has the money to do better and hasn’t had the medical issues.

    I guess maybe this just doesn’t rise to something I’m willing to care that much about…all things considered.