The Political Life of Dr. Oz

His campaign to be the next Republican senator from Pennsylvania is facing one major problem: Republicans in Pennsylvania.

Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow
Photo-Illustration: Joe Darrow

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Dr. Oz for Senate is headquartered in a patch of strip mall next to a Mexican restaurant in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where the candidate’s father-in-law, Dr. Gerald Lemole, maintains a medical office down the road from the Lemole family farm, three acres overlooking the Philmont Country Club that the candidate, who seems to live in New Jersey, has claimed as his official place of residence. Five days into the race, there was no discernible election-related activity of any kind. No staff. No yard signs. No signs of life at all.

Except for John Palma.

“Are you looking for Mehmet?” he asked.

I said that I was.

The owner of John Sebastian Painting and Renovating (slogan: YOUR WORLD IN COLOR, WHEN QUALITY AND NEATNESS COUNT), Palma is a tattooed 47-year-old Italian American father of three from the area. He is friendly but uninterested in bullshit, the kind of guy more inclined to talk to a stranger with ease about matters of philosophy than of meteorology. As I approached the building, he was crouched on the pavement, applying coats of white paint to the concrete markers of the parking spaces that spanned the lot. He’d meant to complete the project during the workweek, but it was just as well that he could do it now when nobody was likely to bother him. Or that had been the idea, anyway, before he noticed the car with D.C. plates roll up. He assumed I worked for the candidate.

“Do you have an appointment?” he asked. I said that I didn’t. “Is he expecting you?” I said that he wasn’t. I explained who I was and that I was trying to speak to someone — anyone — from the campaign, which had so far proved elusive.

Representatives for The Dr. Oz Show, on which he could still be seen in some markets for a prime daytime hour (the program has since been canceled by Sony Pictures Television) and from which he still posted clips to his social-media accounts (including segments on sleep apnea, weight loss, and Martha Stewart’s advice for a “stress-free holiday”), directed political inquiries to the personal email address of Casey Contres, a 32-year-old operative who had managed a losing U.S. Senate campaign in Colorado before spending a year on the Hill as chief of staff for a Texas congressman. Now he was Dr. Oz’s campaign manager, and part of managing the campaign seemed to mean ignoring questions about the campaign.

Dr. Oz had announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination for the open Pennsylvania seat with a glossy commercial produced by Jamestown Associates, once the ad-maker for once-president Donald Trump. He then appeared for lighthearted chats with Sean Hannity of Fox News, whom he had befriended at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when the men bonded over the discovery that they kept similar insomniac schedules and began talking often on the phone around 3 or 4 a.m., and with Greg Kelly of Newsmax, son of former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly, also a personal friend. Those outside Dr. Oz’s social circle were not invited to observe the candidate. He had thus far staged no rally, held no press conference, planned no public events, and offered no public schedule.

Outside headquarters, Palma said that I might be in luck. As it happened, he was a friend of the family, and he had an idea. He could place a call to someone and ask them to contact Dr. Lemole — whom he called “Uncle Jerry” — since maybe he would know the whereabouts of his candidate son-in-law.

Palma left a message for Uncle Jerry. I waited for a while, talking about this and that, then I waited for a while longer, and then I figured I should let Palma get back to painting. But before I left town for the day, I decided to try reaching the Ozes directly, since my efforts to contact the candidate via what you might call the formal process were not working. There was no answer at a number listed for their home in New Jersey. And no answer at the 212 number listed for Dr. Oz himself. Then I tried Lisa Oz, the self-help author and self-described certified Reiki expert who has been married to the candidate for 36 years. To my surprise, she picked up — for about a second. Just as quickly as it started, the call was over. I had barely said hello. Unsure if we’d been disconnected or she’d hung up on me, I tried her back. The tone of her voice suggested it had definitely been the latter.

“How did you get my number?” she asked sharply. I told her that her number was listed in public records, and this annoyed her too. “Oh,” she said, “I should have gotten rid of that.” I was about to explain that public records don’t work that way, but she cut in. “Have a nice day,” she said, but it sounded like a cross between the way women of the South say “Bless your heart” and men of Brooklyn call some asshole “pal” after being cut off in traffic. Then she hung up.

Or she thought she did.

“It’s Olivia from The New Yorker, the woman who talked to Michelle,” she said.

I was confused. First of all, I work for New York.

“Excuse me?” I said. “… Uh, hello?”

Another voice answered. It was Dr. Oz.

“Michelle should never have spoken to her,” he said. “That’s who’s down at the office now.”

Dr. and Mrs. Oz did not or could not hear me, and they did not realize that, rather than end the phone call, Lisa Oz had mistakenly connected her device to what sounded like the sound system of a vehicle, meaning that as they engaged in paranoid conversation and argument for more than four minutes, I remained on the line, hearing every word of it.

“Who’s down at the office?” Mrs. Oz asked.

“She’s down at the office,” Dr. Oz said. “Your father called and said there’s a reporter from The New Yorker waiting for me down there who said she had an appointment … We?! We had an appointment to meet today!” He said this last thing with acid sarcasm.

“You think she made it up?” Mrs. Oz asked.

“I think she made it up completely!” Dr. Oz said. He sounded angry. “Y–y–you know what it’s — it’s — it’s called, it’s called lying also. It’s called being a liar.”

“This fucking girl reporter,” Mrs. Oz said. “This is the girl reporter who broke into some guy’s house and stole all his photo albums.” She was referring to an accusation made up by disgraced ex-Trump aide Corey Lewandowski in retaliation after I had reported details of his Single White Male obsession with a White House official. Lewandowski has faced accusations of assault and one charge of battery (which he denied; it was later dropped) from multiple women, including my best friend, and according to his most recent accuser, he intimidated her by claiming he had committed two murders as he stalked, harassed, and touched her without her consent. On the other hand, in 2019, I killed a spider that was on my windshield, something I cried about again two weeks ago.

Dr. Oz paused. “Did someone lock the door?”

“No,” Mrs. Oz said.

“We’ve got to do it,” Dr. Oz said.

Dr. and Mrs. Oz talked over each other.

“That’s what Casey — ” Mrs. Oz began to say, referring to the campaign manager. “When Michelle told me she spoke to her — ” she continued, referring to Michelle Bouchard, a longtime friend of the couple whom I had interviewed a few days earlier. We’d hit it off during a long conversation that I found helpful for understanding Dr. and Mrs. Oz, and she had volunteered to forward my request to the couple and encourage them to speak with me too. Then she clammed up. If she was going to talk with me again, she said, she would have to get approval from the Ozes before doing so. Another friend of the couple, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that Lisa Oz was not happy to hear that associates were freely commenting about her husband to a reporter and that she had been calling around, complaining that “some fucking girl” was “doing a hit piece” and that the policy going forward should be “Don’t fucking talk to her.” It was only day two of my assignment, when my questions were devastating suggestions of character assassination like “What is Dr. Oz like?” and “What do you think of his decision to run for office?”

This was a small inconvenience but one I was sure I could overcome. Fucking girl reporter though I may be, I wasn’t doing a hit piece, which in media jargon means a story that is conceived in bad faith to destroy its subject, and I have found that most people who are fearful of the press but require attention for one reason or another tend to conclude that the value of an opportunity to be understood outweighs the risk of being misconstrued.

Dr. Oz interrupted Mrs. Oz. “Michelle said stuff she shouldn’t have said.”

Mrs. Oz became defensive. “Uh, no, not a lot — ” she said.

Dr. Oz became sharp. “She said things she shouldn’t have fucking said,” he said, his voice rising. “She shouldn’t have fucking said — ”

Mrs. Oz interrupted Dr. Oz. “She didn’t say — ”

Dr. Oz interrupted Mrs. Oz. “She said shit she shouldn’t have said! That I was going to be the next leader of the Republican Party — ”

“No, she didn’t say that,” Mrs. Oz said.

“You were the one who told me that!” Dr. Oz said. “You told me that’s what she said!”

“No — I — ” Mrs. Oz said.

“That Michelle told her I’m going to be the next leader of the Republican Party, shit like that, that’s what you told me she said!” Dr. Oz said.

Michelle Bouchard had, in fact, said that. “I think the old guard of the Republican Party was just that, the old guard. I think the new Republican Party is emerging, and the new Republican Party is going to be great,” she told me. Dr. Oz, she said, was part of the new guard, a group that includes Glenn Youngkin, who defeated the Democratic Establishment to get elected governor of Virginia in November. “They should be very grateful that someone that intelligent and that objective, someone of his caliber who is able to reach across aisles, is actually running. He’s the greatest healer I’ve ever known,” she said.

At the time, the remarks didn’t strike me as significant. Bouchard was a friend of the candidate, and she was doing her best to sell me on the idea that he was a force for good. If anything, I was inclined to agree with the premise that Dr. Oz’s braininess was an improvement for the Republican Party; a two-party system like ours suffers when the most prominent representatives are proudly anti-intellectual, as Republicans have been for most of my lifetime, from George W. Bush to Sarah Palin to Trump. Besides, other friends, citing their disappointment that Dr. Oz would align himself with a Republican Party defined by the January 6 siege on the United States Capitol, had told me things that presented more obvious reasons for the candidate to panic.

“I love Mehmet, but I’m really pissed,” one of them said. “I would have loved to see normal Republicans, but there’s no way you can be normal now. This would end his career in a second because Republicans would hate it, but it’s Lisa who is pro-life. Mehmet once told me, ‘I’m pro-life, but I’m not against a woman’s right to choose.’ He said, ‘As a physician, there are times when it has to happen, unfortunately.’ He’s a smart guy. He’s pragmatic. And that just doesn’t work in the Republican Party. Wait until they find out that he’s a Muslim! Or that he served in the Turkish army!”

Had I not been listening to Dr. Oz freak out about it, and had I not heard Lisa Oz misrepresent what had happened, I probably would have forgotten about what Bouchard had said. Now I had to wonder why a candidate running for a high-profile position of power in the Republican Party wouldn’t want to be seen as a leader of that party. “I think it’s going to be the party of the people. That may sound ironic because Democrats have always said they’re the party of the people, but I feel that the party that’s going to emerge in the next five years from the Republican Party is going to be a rainbow of all religions and races and types of people,” Bouchard told me. “I know Mehmet agrees with me.”

“I did not say anything about that,” Mrs. Oz said to Dr. Oz.

“She shouldn’t have fucking said that,” Dr. Oz said. “We’ve got to go lock our door because — ”

“We should maybe call and keep an eye out,” Mrs. Oz said. “Here, I’ll drive.”

Doors slammed. Dr. and Mrs. Oz seemed to exit the car and enter a space where they greeted others with whom they engaged for a few seconds in animated conversation about what sounded like a million random things at once, from Mrs. Oz bringing someone something to eat to, out of nowhere, the subject of NFTs. The call ended.

I stared at my phone, upset by what I had heard and not sure what to do. Before I could figure it out, the phone rang. It was Lisa Oz. I picked it up and said hello. She paused, then she hung up on me. This time she was successful.

Dr. Oz with Nate Berkus, Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Phil, and Suze Orman in 2010. Photo: Amanda Schwab/Starpix/Shutterstock/Amanda Schwab/Starpix/Shuttersto

Probably it had to do with the collapse of institutions at the most macro level. With the sins of the Catholic Church. With the decades of traumas and scandals in Washington. With the disintegration of the community that accompanied the rush to the suburbs. All I know for sure is that my mother met Oprah Winfrey before I met my mother, and for the duration of her brief life, no deity or dignitary inspired in her such sustained faithfulness. I could — and did — get sent home from Sunday school for almost any type of rebellion and receive no punishment. Yet I would never have dared to disrespect the service hour observed by sofa on weekday afternoons between 4 and 5 p.m.

The Oprah Winfrey Show debuted in 1986, one year after my parents married and two before they had my brother. By the time I was born, in 1993, the show was firmly No. 1 in daytime talk, averaging some 10 million viewers a day thanks to fans like my mother, home with two small children and primed to welcome the invitation to escape the isolation of the living room through the lambent portal. Celebrities now talk (and talk) about their self-care journeys; Oprah asked you to take her hand and journey with her.

For my mother, it was devotion, but it wasn’t exactly blind. When Oprah recommended a book, my mother read it. When Oprah tried a diet, my mother adopted it. When Oprah swore by a shirt or a shoe or a beauty product, my mother wanted it, even if increasingly what Oprah swore by was not attainable for members of the working class. When I look back on Oprah’s promotion of consumerism in the decadent post-9/11 period and feel the queasy temptation to trace a line to the frauds committed against Americans sold subprime-mortgage loans before the Great Recession, it remains true and worth something to me that I was less lonely during that hour of the day. I think my mom must have been too.

It was with her total trust, then, that Oprah brought other advisers into our lives, the most successful of whom were two male doctors, one of the head and one of the heart. Dr. Phil McGraw, a clinical psychologist whose programming about abusive marriages and traumatic divorce I consumed in the same gripped, horrified way that I watched hours of Law & Order: SVU, and Dr. Mehmet Oz, a successful cardiac surgeon with a beautiful family, beautiful hair, and the ability to chat about the grossest and most intimate stuff imaginable while maintaining the megawatt charm of a movie star. My mother and millions of other women swooned.

Dr. Oz made viewers feel safe and in control of their bodies and, by extension, their destinies. What’s more: He had tips for losing weight, catnip for housewives and for Oprah viewers deeply invested in the host’s endless war against her own uncooperative corporeal form. My mother leapt at Dr. Oz’s suggestions to consume strange oils from fish and flaxseed. To collect “superfoods” as if the food pyramid were a game of Pac-Man and quinoa and açai were extra lives. To revere the humble blueberry as a sacred orb.

As the obesity crisis swelled in America, the advice of experts such as Dr. Oz seemed urgent. But no other television doctor had the same appetite or constitution for stardom as the high-school football player raised by Turkish immigrants in Wilmington, Delaware, who studied biology at Harvard and earned dual degrees from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Wharton School before following his father, a thoracic surgeon, into the family trade. By the mid-1990s, Dr. Oz was a celebrated surgeon at Columbia-Presbyterian, and in 1996, after taking part in a high-profile heart transplant performed on Yankees manager Joe Torre’s brother, Frank, he found that he loved being the public face of medical advancement.

As both Dr. and Mrs. Oz have told the story, it was Lisa who managed her husband’s career from the operating room to the greenroom. She had studied to be an actress and had some connections to the entertainment industry, and she conceived of her husband’s TV career long before it was a reality. “I feel like I haven’t had a career at all. I’m a professional dilettante,” she once said. “My favorite thing to do is hang out with my husband … but I couldn’t do surgery with him, and what he loves to do is work. So we devised a way to work together.” In 2003, she executive-produced a 13-episode series for the Discovery Health Channel called Second Opinion With Dr. Oz. Oprah was the first guest.

When she discovered the unusually telegenic surgeon, Oprah solicited the opinion of another daytime-TV personality. “She asked me what I thought,” this person told me. This person thought the potential was obvious: “He was really smart. A great-looking guy who has that ‘It’ factor.”

Dr. Oz became an Oprah regular, and when The Dr. Oz Show premiered, it took off. He fit in easily among the celebrities in his new social stratum and now counts among his friends everyone from hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio (who did not wish to discuss their relationship with me) to Brooke Shields (who did not respond to a text seeking comment) and Martha Stewart (who said she couldn’t talk owing to her “busy year-end schedule”). And then Dr. Oz seemed to change.

“He’s one of those public figures who really haunt me,” Frank Bruni of the New York Times said. Bruni met Dr. Oz when he wrote about him in 2010 for The New York Times Magazine. Bruni spent weeks observing his subject, work that required him to experience for himself the incongruity of Dr. Oz’s dual existence. One day, he was in an operating room, peering into the open chest cavity of a patient as Dr. Oz stitched around her heart. The next, he was hanging out at a studio as Dr. Oz and his producers discussed a plan to create prop body parts to hand out to the audience at a taping of The Dr. Oz Show.

During the process, Bruni said, “two things came into equally vivid relief: This is a man who is or was a serious doctor. Seriously trained. Seriously talented. Gifted. And with a record of performance in which he contributed an enormous amount to humanity. But at the same time, I’m sitting in on these story meetings where they’re talking about ‘Does cotton or Silly Putty or something else better stand in for testicles?’ I mean, how do you go from A to B? Why does he seem more excited about the fake testicles than the open-heart surgery? The answer is because the latter was the route to fame and riches — and that’s the Faustian bargain.” That observation was not just some convenient mythic device, Bruni said, but his honest conclusion about a subject he’d thought hard about for more than a decade. “I’ve met and profiled very few if any people who so embody the wages of ambition.” In this allegory, the Devil gave the doctor wealth and fame in exchange for his reputation.

“Somewhere, I’m not sure how, he started to sell out — it happens to a lot of people when they get money and success; they want more money and more success. He went from doctor to entertainer to scam artist,” a veteran daytime producer said. “Dr. Oz is dangerous because he believes he’s got some divine power.”

Despite his critics, Dr. Oz remained in syndication until he decided to walk away for his next act, something that, in Trumpian fashion, he has spun as a sacrifice that demonstrates his commitment to his country. Yet Dr. Oz leaves his show with one year left on his contract with Sony Pictures Television, and those with knowledge of the deal told me it would have been a struggle to get it renewed again. “The ratings of The Dr. Oz Show had been going way down for years and years,” a former producer on the program said. (The Oz campaign denies the show was in decline.) By this time, Dr. Oz had received so much criticism for promoting pseudo-science that the show hummed with a kind of anxiety, everyone — including the host — fearful of using the wrong word to hype a segment and getting ensnared, once again, in a PR crisis. “You could not use the word miracle,” for instance, the former producer said. “I had friends who would say, ‘Ugh! I can’t believe you’re working for Dr. Oz!’ And the way I’d defend it was to say that it was a difficult place to work because the content was complicated; you had to find a way to take a complex medical issue and make it easy to understand and entertaining. I know there were controversies, but I had never seen anything in daytime TV vetted so closely in my life.”

After a while, though, Dr. Oz seemed to relax his concerns about running afoul of good advice or taste in pursuit of better numbers. When the host made plans to incorporate regular segments about true crime into the program, “I was like, ‘What?! How the fuck are we going to do true crime on The Dr. Oz Show?’ ” the former producer said. “And then it was twice a week, sometimes three times a week during ratings week. It was a stretch. The only way that you could tie it to something medically was to talk about some DNA evidence. It was a sign to me that this guy is willing to do whatever it takes for money. So it wasn’t a shock or a surprise for me when I saw that he was running for office, because he just wants to fucking win.”

With guest Michelle Obama on The Dr. Oz Show in 2012. Photo: ©Sony Pictures Television / Everett Collection

An elite, pro-choice, anti-gun, transgender-child-supporting, Michelle Obama–hugging Muslim carpet-bagger and Turkish-army veteran who once announced on national television that his testicles descend in such a way that his penis curves to the left. That is a sample of the data conservative Republicans cite as proof that Dr. Oz is a threat to their plans to win the Senate in 2022. And that’s just what they’ve identified in the vast public record available courtesy of Dr. Oz himself. The oppo researchers have barely started.

When Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, announced in October 2020 that he would not seek reelection, he created a new opportunity for political drama and uncertainty in the commonwealth that Trump won in 2016 by less than one percentage point and that Joe Biden won back by fractionally more in 2020. In the macho, self-assured terminology of election punditry, Pennsylvania is a battleground where the rare excitement of a toss-up is the result of a decades of gerrymandering and deliberate negative partisanship urging the population’s small number of voters into polarized and predictable enemy camps. With most races in the 2022 midterms on the edge of meaninglessness, Pennsylvania’s upcoming Senate contest is the closest thing to this cycle’s main event. And so before Dr. Oz can woo into voters the suburban women who have made up his fan base for 20 years in November’s general election, he will have to prove to the cliquish and squeamish grassroots gatekeepers and machine kingmakers of the Pennsylvania Republican Party that he can be trusted not to fuck up their plans to win the majority. Or at least trusted more than his competition.

Getting the nomination of either party for a race this high profile is bound to be a fraught endeavor, and nobody is likely to emerge with both their dignity and their sanity intact. When GOP leaders statewide sought to censure Toomey for voting to convict President Trump of inciting the January 6 insurrection during his second impeachment trial, the expectations for candidates in the primary crystallized. “Any candidate who wants to win in Pennsylvania in 2022 must be full-Trump MAGA,” Steve Bannon said at the time.

For a while, that candidate appeared to be Sean Parnell, a former Army Ranger who had received the Purple Heart for his service in Afghanistan. Parnell lost his bid for the House in 2020, but he made a good impression on the party’s right wing, and in September, Trump announced he’d earned the MAGA seal of approval. “Sean Parnell will always put America First,” he said. “He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

But there were already signs that Parnell, his personal life falling apart amid accusations of child and spousal abuse from his ex-wife, wouldn’t last through the May primary, and opportunists readied themselves to act on his reversal of luck. For Dr. Oz, the plan was simple enough: When Parnell dropped out, he would swoop in to save the day, inheriting Parnell’s supporters. He would then bring in new ones on the strength of his celebrity and accomplishments, which would appeal to moderates with college degrees, and his good relationship with the former president, which would appeal to the extremists and conspiracists.

He’d always thought he would run for office. In recent years, his angling in that direction had become more and more obvious. He’d even done Trump the favor of welcoming him onto The Dr. Oz Show in 2016 to discuss the results of a physical exam that claimed he had clocked in at an improbable-seeming weight placing him just outside the body mass index’s categorization for obesity. “We were watching during the taping, and everyone was like, ‘Wait, is anyone going to challenge him?’ ” the former producer said. “A lot of people were really upset. People were saying, ‘Oh God. Oz likes him.’ ”

Plus Dr. Oz had been hated by some of the very people who went on to make up the #resistance to the Trump presidency ever since he was dragged before Congress in 2014 and yelled at by Claire McCaskill for promoting diet pills and other quacky quick fixes on his program. In the years thereafter, Dr. Oz seemed to radicalize against what we now refer to as “cancel culture.”

He aired hours of conversation with Canadian intellectual and conservative social-media megastar Jordan Peterson in which they discussed the range of his oeuvre, the breakdown of society, the importance of traditional marriage, of meaningful relationships, of purpose, as well as the psychology of murderers and the all-meat (plus salt) diet Peterson had adopted and claimed had transformed his body and his mind. Dr. Oz, who has cautioned against diets that ban any food groups and who had never been shy about condemning dietary habits he believes to be harmful, offered no criticism. He spoke at length to Ryan Holiday, the author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, about the “fake news” epidemic, of which Dr. Oz said he considered himself a victim. When Peter Thiel engineered the end of Gawker, Dr. Oz said he found himself “cheering.” The corrupt press had made him “the poster child for fake advertising,” he said, “and we have large media companies making a fortune … on my name, Oprah’s name, many other people’s names.”

As far back as 2009, Dr. Oz had publicly signaled his conservatism, once telling New York that the native of the city he most admired was Teddy Roosevelt because of his libertarian values. He was involved, somewhat, in Republican politics in New Jersey and had openly supported John McCain. In recent years, if you were watching the show or listening to the podcast, his lurch away from the center was apparent.

Nobody on the right appears to care. “He’s really stumbled out of the gate,” one conservative operative said.

Parnell made his exit official on November 22, and eight days later Dr. Oz was in the race, advertising himself with a combination of MAGA slogans, medical puns, and references to his own brand. “Pennsylvania needs a conservative who will put America first,” he said. Why was he running? Well, he wouldn’t put it that way. In his words, he was “stepping forward to help cure our country’s ills” because “America’s heartbeat is in a code red in need of a defibrillator to shock it back to life.” What was his vision for the state? “It all starts with YOU!” he said, a nod to his successful YOU book series — YOU: The Owner’s Manual; YOU: Being Beautiful; YOU: Losing Weight; and so on.

But even at his most right-wing sounding over the last few years, he still mostly came across as nuanced — not a positive in this primary race. “The best thing he has going for him is his relationship with Hannity,” the conservative operative said. During their late night pandemic chats, Dr. Oz would relate to Hannity the latest information he was hearing from his friends in the medical community about coronavirus treatments, which Hannity would then share with his audience. Dr. Oz promoted chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in his own Fox News appearances at the start of the outbreak, though he eventually cooled on the recommendation, advising viewers that more studies were required. At the time, he advocated for masks and vaccines and did not vilify Anthony Fauci. As a candidate, he is now calling for Fauci to be fired and emphasizing not his belief in the science of vaccines but his opposition to mandates. It’s a contortionist act, and so far, the crowd is booing. “The influencer types are not fans of him,” the conservative operative said. “Dude is getting blown up. They are on a jihad against this guy. So it’s a matter of ‘How much does that permeate into the grass roots?’”

That work with the grass roots happens at the levels below Hannity and often out of sight of television cameras. It means identifying the influencers and then identifying who is influencing the influencers and then doing your best to influence them. “If I was him, I’d be going to The Daily Caller and Breitbart and The Federalist and doing off-the-records, getting to know these people,” the conservative operative said. Trump relied on consultants, wacky and anti-professional, who at least knew that much.

Faced with accusations of phoniness or ideological impurity, Trump knew how to respond. “He’d say, Yeah, I bought and sold Hillary. That’s how I know all these politicians are for sale,” the conservative operative said. “Trump was able to deal with those questions. I don’t know that Oz is.”

On Fox News recently, Dr. Oz was asked the kind of obvious-to-arise question consultants are paid to coach a candidate to answer. He smirked and nodded as the host wound up: “What is your position as both a doctor and a senatorial candidate on when life begins? When should we draw the line when abortion is legal?”

Dr. Oz seemed prepared, and he rattled off his answer quickly. “As a doctor, I appreciate the sanctity of life, and for that reason I’m strongly pro-life with the three exceptions I’ve mentioned. That’s how I would vote,” he said. (The exceptions are cases of rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. Many pro-life conservatives reject these exceptions.) “And when does that life begin?” the Fox News host asked. Dr. Oz made a smacking sound with his lips. “Again, if I’m pro-life, then that’s a decision that com–comes back to the fss-sanctity of when you think life does begin — ” He spoke in a sputtering way, moving his head and raising his shoulders and releasing them in a subtle defensive manner, as if to convey that the correctness of his views was obvious and further questions were not needed. “And I believe that it begins when you’re in the mother’s womb.”

The Fox News host was not pleased by this answer. His expression turned sour and judgmental. “When you’re in the mother’s womb? That carries you all the way up to nine months’ pregnancy,” he said. Dr. Oz did his best to recover. “No, of course not. Life’s already started when you’re in your mother’s womb,” he said. He tried to pivot the discussion away from the technicalities on which he was being quizzed. “But it’s a rathole to get trapped in the different ways of talking about it,” he said.

All the expensive strategists and consultants Dr. Oz has hired from the Republican Establishment and the “Never Trump” movement did not foresee, or did not appropriately assess, the threat of a challenger emerging to snap up the MAGA supporters Dr. Oz assumed would be rightfully his. That candidate, David McCormick, is expected to formally enter the race “imminently,” according to his advisers. A Washington, Pennsylvania, native raised in Bloomsburg, McCormick graduated from West Point, fought in the Gulf War, then served in George W. Bush’s White House. Although he worked and lived in Pittsburgh for a time, like Dr. Oz he has spent recent years elsewhere, and in the 2020 election, he was registered to vote in Connecticut. Alongside Dr. Oz’s friend Ray Dalio, he runs Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund. In 2019, McCormick married Dina Powell, the Goldman Sachs girlboss who briefly served in the Trump White House, where she befriended key Trump advisers.

On paper, there’s at least as much of a Trumpist case against a globalist money guy as there is against a celebrity who took part in the Obama White House’s anti-obesity campaign, yet it’s McCormick who seems primed to collect the support of everyone from Bannon to the vest-wearing Republicans who threw their weight behind the recent victor in Virginia. Trump White House veterans Hope Hicks and Cliff Sims are expected to take formal roles in the campaign, and others from the administration have encouraged him to enter the race.

In Trumpworld, McCormick is widely seen as a man with an inconvenient background who might pan out anyway. “I hate to say this, but if you’re not willing to go full retard in a Republican primary right now, it’s hard. The expectations are what they are,” said a MAGA operative involved in the Pennsylvania race. “He’s got an uphill battle as a hedge-fund CEO, but he’s done a good job so far.”

Dr. Oz, of course, will be fighting the same battle for conservative credibility — and the McCormick team will be looking to seed doubts. “The best-case scenario for Oz is the media attacks him, like, ‘Look at this quack saying crazy stuff on vaccines or the election integrity’ or whatever, so he can say, ‘Oh, look at the media attacking me!’ That would help him,” the MAGA operative said. “But he had an 8-year-old on his show talking about being trans, and he said that was okay. He said a ton of pro-choice things over the years. We’ve never elected a Muslim to the U.S. Senate, and here we have a Turkish-citizen Muslim who served in the Turkish army.” One Trump turned McCormick adviser told me, “We’re getting reports every day from people he’s meeting with — he’s doing these private meet-and-greet type of things — that he’s incoherent when it comes to the issues.”

You’re telling me there’s no room in the modern Republican Party for a celebrity with a long public record of expressing opinions at odds with the values of the conservative base? That being friends with famous Democrats is a nonstarter in a Republican primary? Since when are Republican candidates not allowed to change their positions on abortion or just about anything else, for that matter? The answer for Oz-skeptical Trumpists, it seems, is that Dr. Oz just isn’t the guy, so he doesn’t get to play by the non-rules. Sorry, but nobody said politics was fair. “Dr. Oz is nowhere near as national a celebrity as Donald Trump was,” the former Trump adviser continued. “Donald Trump was larger than life. Dr. Oz sells diet pills on daytime TV. Oz and his team are making a major miscalculation if they think they can run him like he’s Donald Trump.”

Still, laughing off the TV doc feels a bit like laughing off the TV dealmaker, and if The Apprentice created a fantasy persona for its star that appealed mostly to young men who wanted to be rich, The Dr. Oz Show and its Oprah-endorsed star are best understood as wellness fantasy for women. As we navigate the future of American politics after Trump, we have to know: Did he change everything? Or did everything change for him?

“I’ve heard a lot of Democrats say that it would be great if Dr. Oz wins this primary because he will be so far to the right by that time, with everything he will have to say in order to win, that it will help us in the general, and I see a lot of red flags,” said Carly Cooperman, a Democratic pollster who has been looking closely at the dynamics in Pennsylvania. “He has a lot of money to blanket the airwaves. He’s a celebrity. He was in our houses growing up. Assuming that sentiments continue to be negative next year toward the Democrats,” she trailed off. “I’m worried.”

With Lisa Oz in their New Jersey home in 2017. Photo: Bryan Anselm/Redux/Bryan Anselm/Redux

Though the candidate has lived in New Jersey for most of this century, primarily and most recently at a Cliffside Park compound on several acres along the Hudson River, and though it was from there that Dr. and Mrs. Oz voted absentee in the 2020 election, and though the second home the Oz family maintains is a historic $18 million oceanfront estate in Palm Beach, a short drive from Mar-a-Lago, he’s running where there’s room to run and where, as luck would have it, his in-laws maintain the lush estate the campaign claims he is now renting.

Earlier on Sunday, December 5, I was exploring the surrounding town of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, and feeling pretty good. For three days, I had consumed at regular intervals exclusively blueberries; raw massaged kale; raw unsalted almonds, Brazil nuts, or walnuts; steamed tofu; steamed brown rice; poached salmon; baked sweet potatoes; and unfiltered flaxseed oil. I had exercised consistently. I had fallen asleep easily, then risen alongside the sun without struggle or even, on that morning, so much as an alarm.

My new habits were not in pursuit of self-improvement but of public service, in accordance with the general dietary and lifestyle advice dispensed by Dr. Oz. The idea was to live as he said I ought to live while I reported on his political ambitions as a means of better understanding his contributions to American popular culture. But consistency is the thief of content, and new information about Dr. Oz’s diet and lifestyle is what the Oz brand requires in infinite quantities in order to make and market and sell the dozens of books and magazines and hours and hours on his podcast and radio program and The Dr. Oz Show. In practice, this means that sorting out how Dr. Oz lives is surprisingly difficult.

For instance, Dr. Oz assembled a list of his 25 greatest health tips for Men’s Health in 2013. Among them: “Don’t Skip Breakfast.” His breakfast, he wrote, consists of steel-cut oatmeal, walnuts, raisins, and flaxseed oil. In 2020, however, he announced that we should “cancel” breakfast” and, amid a strange feud with breakfast evangelist Mark Wahlberg, disclosed that he does not eat breakfast and instead waits until midmorning to break his 16-hour intermittent fast by eating a handful of nuts before lunch, his largest meal of the day.

The plan I hatched, then, was to devote the duration of my reporting — a three-week period — to experimenting with all the variations of the Dr. Oz Way of Life. That Sunday, in the interest of time, I would be taking on dual assignments: eating small amounts of raw nuts and berries every hour on the hour, the diet Dr. Oz claimed to maintain circa 2010, while consuming a beverage made from raw green coffee beans and taking supplements made, allegedly, of saffron extract, two substances Dr. Oz has promoted as “miracle” fat burners and appetite suppressants.

By the time I made my way to the Lower Moreland area to meet with Congressman Brendan Boyle, a Democrat who until redistricting would have represented Dr. Oz’s in-laws, my hands were shaking. Boyle ordered a toasted bagel with cream cheese and a coffee roughly the size of Senator Rand Paul (also a doctor). I mentioned that Dr. Oz would not approve of his choice. In fact, the other daytime-TV personality even told me that whenever they talk to Dr. Oz, he tells them to stop eating bagels. Like the TV personality, the congressman was not deterred by the doctor’s advice. Boyle went ahead and ate the bagel.

Although Boyle has lived in the area for about 15 years and has been an elected official here for 13 of them, he had never heard even a rumor about Dr. Oz visiting the area, never mind living in it. “Literally, I learned this for the first time two days ago reading the local paper.” Not only that, but the farm Dr. Oz now claims as his home is less than ten minutes from Boyle’s house. “I laughed out loud and then I texted my wife and said, ‘You will not believe where Dr. Oz says he lives!’ ”

Boyle is quick to admit that, for members of his party, there’s a lot to worry about in this race. “Eleven months from now, if we’re looking at the race and it’s much more than 51 to 49 one way or the other, I would be shocked,” he said. “A 50-50 state, open seat, in a midterm that, historically, should favor Republicans over Democrats.” Boyle said he hoped voters would see through Dr. Oz’s act. “Being rich and bored is not a good reason to run for office,” he said. “It is a great annoyance to me, these celebrity candidates, or people who are now in politics, like the Lauren Boeberts and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, who are just there for clicks and attention. Unfortunately, we are increasingly getting and electing these people who aren’t in it for public-policy reasons.”

Where the mogul responsible for creating this candidate’s celebrity stands on the contest is unclear. At a meeting in Pittsburgh with Republican officials and activists, one source said, Dr. Oz told the room that he believed he could count on Oprah to back him in the general election, when he would need to recalibrate his messaging for moderates after pitching himself to right-wing voters in the primary. According to this account of his remarks, he said that he has spoken to her about his campaign and “she’s supportive,” both because of their friendship and because it would be in her “strategic” interests to offer a public endorsement. Elsewhere, Dr. Oz has promoted a story about protecting Oprah by begging her not to involve herself in the messy business of the Pennsylvania Senate race. As her friend, the story goes, he prioritized their relationship over her potentially valuable endorsement. The former producer thought this sounded unlikely: “There is no way that Oprah is going to help turn Pennsylvania red. Oprah is not gonna do that.”

I reached out to Oprah to request an interview. “Ms. Winfrey is not doing interviews at this time,” Nicole Nichols, her spokeswoman, replied 14 days later. A few days later, Nichols wrote again: “I have one statement for you from Ms. Winfrey. No other comments: ‘One of the great things about our democracy is that every citizen can decide to run for public office. Mehmet Oz has made that decision. And now it’s up to the residents of Pennsylvania to decide who will represent them.’ —Oprah Winfrey.”

After my strange phone call with Dr. and Mrs. Oz, I made my way through New Jersey to New York, wired from the green coffee beans and saffron extract. The appetite suppressants worked too well, and I hadn’t been able to eat a walnut in hours. Bored but unable to sleep, I read Lisa Oz’s self-help book, Us, which explained, somewhat, why her husband was seeking elected office. There had been a moment in his medical career, she wrote, when “I got the sense that he was stagnating, and for Mehmet that was tantamount to death.” They talked about the problem. “It became evident that he wanted a steeper learning curve, more variety in his routine, and the chance to have a bigger impact in the world.” The solution then was a television show. Now, it seems, the solution may be politics.

Those who know him say Dr. Oz was always likely to run for office and always likely to do so as a conservative. He was a networker and backslapper by nature, exactly the kind of person cut out for this work. “He told me once he had plans to go with Dick Armey and a couple people hunting, and I said to him, ‘Since when do you fucking hunt?’ ” one friend said. It’s the way he’s running, the appeals he’s making, that have come as a shock. “I’m sick over what he’s doing,” the friend said. It seemed that their relationship would not survive his candidacy because there are some things you just can’t abide no matter how much you love a person, and Dr. Oz had made his priorities clear. “Look, Mehmet always wanted to be president,” this person added. “I don’t know if he thinks this is the way to do that.” Reached for comment, the Oz campaign denied this was true: “Dr. Oz has never said that.” Which is exactly what a senator would say.

The Political Life of Dr. Oz