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Two things you need to know right off the bat—I resisted watching The West Wing for a long time, and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003.
I’m fine. We found it really early, and great strides have been made with regard to MS since it was that big scarey disease we did walk-a-thons for in junior high. I get a weekly shot, I take very good care of myself, and I’m fine.
The MS wasn’t the initial reason I resisted The West Wing, although it certainly became one. I just had no interest in a show about the inner workings of the White House. To say I am not politically minded would be an understatement, and back then, I thought that premise would make a difference as to whether I enjoyed a show or not. I had yet to learn that if the writing is that good, premise doesn’t matter to me. It was The West Wing and Breaking Bad that taught me that. Initially rejected on premise, both of those shows became two of my very favourites, and it’s because the writing was that good.
At the time of my diagnosis, The West Wing had been on for a few years, and was a resounding hit among people who liked smart television. Family and friends recommended it to me all the time. I blew them off because of the premise thing, and then once I got diagnosed, I had a really good reason not to watch it, and it was the same reason that hypochondriacs shouldn’t watch House.
Back in Season 1, it was revealed that President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) had multiple sclerosis. Show creator Aaron Sorkin has said that he hadn’t planned on making the MS a recurring thing. He said that he just wanted to explore what would happen in an episode where the President fainted in the Oval Office, so he had his writing staff come up with a condition where this might happen. The episode where it is revealed, “He Shall, From Time To Time…” is shown through the eyes of his very worried wife (Stockard Channing), and it breaks my heart every time. At the end of the episode, though, he is feeling much better, the attack is over, he delivers the State of the Union address, and everyone goes on with their lives. The staff doesn’t know it was MS, they just think he had the flu. By the time the MS thing comes back in Season 2, we’ve almost forgotten about it.
Somewhere along the line, it occurred to Sorkin that MS is a permanent condition, and would probably be a recurring issue for a President, especially when he didn’t tell anyone he had it. The Bartlets had planned on his only serving one term as President, and that he would come and go from the position while in remission, and no one would ever have to know. Now, however, re-election is on the horizon, he needs to decide whether or not to run again, and what happens when he tells his secret to the electorate.
“Two Cathedrals” is the finale to Season 2. It is the last of almost a six-part, serialized story arc, during which he has come out first to his staff, and plans to make a public statement on television. The staff is shaken and upset, and they have been secretly meeting with lawyers and with each other. They’ve been scrambling to deal with not only the situation, but whether or not they have all taken part in perpetrating a fraud on the American people. Feelings are hurt, tempers are high, and still no one knows if the President plans to run again.
At the very end of the previous episode, we got slammed with one of the sadder TV deaths I can think of—the President’s executive secretary, Dolores Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) is killed by a drunk driver. Although only a supporting character, we have come to love and adore Mrs. Landingham almost as much as the President himself does. She’s brilliant and snarky, takes no crap from anyone, runs the Oval Office like a champ, and has some of the best one-liners in the entire series. The very first tears I (and many others) shed over this many-kleenex show were over her, by the way. In the first Christmas episode, “In Excelsis Deo”, she tells of the Christmastime deaths of her twin sons, when they served as medics in Vietnam. The simple phrase “I miss my boys” is a tug on the heartstrings every time.
In what feels like a body blow from the Almighty himself, Mrs. Landingham is killed on her way back from picking up her very first new car. President Bartlet hadn’t told her about the MS yet, but he had planned to do so when she got back from the dealership. “Two Cathedrals” picks up the next morning, when the President is not only planning to break the news of the MS in a television interview, but has to attend Mrs. Landingham’s funeral. There’s also a coup happening in Haiti, and an impending tropical storm.
The episode is told with a series of flashbacks, in which President Bartlet remembers his earliest relationship with Dolores Landingham. They first met when Jed Bartlet’s father was headmaster at an elite boys’ school, and she came on board as his secretary. We’ve only known Mrs. Landingham as a feisty old lady, so the sight of her as a vital thirty-something is a bit of a wrench. She’s played by Kirsten Nelson, who said on The West Wing Weekly podcast that she had previously known Kathryn Joosten for years. In fact, it was Joosten who gave Nelson the heads up that they were going to need someone to play a younger version of herself, and that Nelson should submit herself for the job.
She’s a perfect choice, down to the Chicago accent, and her scenes with young Jed (Jason Widener) beautifully establish the relationship they would go on to have for years. Mrs. Landingham recognizes in Jed a brilliant mind with a gift for leadership, and she takes it upon herself to nurture that, and nudge him in the right direction when he needs it. She tells him that he never had a big sister, and he needs one. She also notices that his father is a bully, who resents that his son is smarter than he himself is, and occasionally demonstrates this with his fists. The two cathedrals in the title of the episode are the chapel at the school, where they first meet, and Washington DC’s National Cathedral, where her funeral is held. In the first flashback, Headmaster Bartlet is admonishing his son for a cigarette butt he found on the floor of the chapel, not particularly interested in who actually left it there.
The whole MS storyline was hard for me, as you may well imagine. When people found out about my diagnosis, I found myself on the receiving end of even more admonishments to watch this show than before. And I said no in an even louder voice, now with a very good reason—my symptoms were and are very mild, and if I watched some fictional character displaying symptoms I myself may or may not have, I would soon start having those symptoms too. Trust me on this, I know the effect my brain can have on my body. Nevertheless, the thought of a President, even a fictional one, living with the same condition I had was kind of encouraging. Whether he meant to or not, Aaron Sorkin made me feel better about having MS, and I would lay odds there were others like me who felt the same way.
I still had no intention of watching the show, but I wished I could say thank you to Aaron Sorkin for this unintended gift. As luck would have it, I got my wish. He was in prep for writing The Social Network, and had gotten himself a Facebook account. It was a group, it was public, and he would go on there and answer questions. I left a post saying “hi, I don’t watch your show and don’t intend to, but here’s why, and thank you”. I never expected a response, but he almost immediately came back with a reply. He said I knocked his socks off, which I was later to learn was an oft-used phrase of his, and I still giggle every time one of his characters says it.
Several months later, I broke down and watched the show. My brother, who is a tricksy hobbitses, lent me the DVDs when he knew I would be working at a summer camp with no TV service, no wifi, and free evenings. With nothing else to watch, I tiptoed into the Bartlet White House, and was soon, as everyone had predicted, hooked. I went back to the Facebook group, and posted again. “Hi, I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I’m finally watching the show, I’m a few episodes in, and I’m really enjoying it.” Within minutes, a reply came back. “Cat! It’s so great to hear from you!” He then went on to give me a heads up as to which episode the MS was introduced in, and said he hoped it wouldn’t upset me. What a nice guy.
We bantered back and forth a few more times, and shared a couple of moments of hardcore Gilbert and Sullivan nerdery. He left Facebook soon after, having gotten the information he needed to write the screenplay. Since he won an Oscar for it, I’m going to say his experience was a success. It certainly was for me. Later, I got to tell my story in Walk With Us: How “The West Wing” Changed Our Lives, by Claire Handscombe. Even later, I got to introduce Claire to my friend Clay Dockery (con runner and fellow nerd), and that introduction led to West Wing Weekend, the first con of its kind. Hopefully not the last…but I digress.
The MS-related episode that was the roughest ride for me wasn’t this one. It was “17 People”, a few episodes earlier, when President Bartlet first breaks the news to Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff), his communications director. Toby is often the voice of his conscience too, and out of all the senior staff, he’s the one who is most likely to get in fights with the commander in chief, by telling the President truths he may not want to hear. Toby, who is never afraid of telling truth to power, absolutely loses his mind on the President, right there in the Oval Office. And the President, who is a proud man, doesn’t handle it well. It’s like every harsh thing about living with this condition that has ever gone through my head, right there on screen. It’s brilliant, but it’s hard to watch.
Back to “Two Cathedrals”, and another flashback. Mrs. Landingham decides to put young Jed’s leadership to the test. She comes to him with the information that the women who work at the school are paid less than the men are. She even has numbers to prove it, and she wants him to take it up with his father. She tells him that if he doesn’t agree that the women should be paid as much as the men, she respects that. She goes on to say “but if you won’t speak up because you can’t be bothered, then God, Jed, I don’t even want to know you.” Jed says nothing, but he puts his hands in his pockets, turns away, smiles, and that tells Mrs. Landingham that he plans to do it. Sadly, his plans get thwarted by his father, who silences his son with a smack across his face before Jed can get his point across.
In National Cathedral, Mrs. Landingham’s funeral is over, and President Bartlet lingers behind. Yes, it was a beautiful service, but the deeply Catholic President has a word or two he wants to have with the Almighty in His house. The Secret Service cover the cathedral, and what follows has got to be one of the more incredible and terrifying experiences in any actor’s life. Martin Sheen himself is Catholic, so berating God right there in a church (and in Latin, no less) had to have been a little intimidating. I have to believe that there is a great satisfaction (even if you’re not holding any sort of God-grudge) in calling God Himself a “feckless thug”, then lighting up a cigarette, and crushing it out on the floor. He turns on his heel and leaves, flinging over his shoulder that God can have his Vice-President as his Democratic nominee.
The President goes home, does his television announcement, and is back in the Oval Office, waiting until it’s time to drive to the following press conference. By now, the staff knows that he’s out, that he’s not running again. CJ Cregg (Allison Janney) drops by for some last minute coaching, and advice that the first question he takes should be from a medical expert, since any other reporter will want to know right away if he is planning to seek re-election. Rain pours down outside, his door blows open, and he shouts irritably for Mrs. Landingham, before remembering that she isn’t coming. However, whether you want to call it a vision, a delusion, or an act of God, Mrs. Landingham walks in, right on cue, chiding him as usual for shouting for her instead of using the intercom.
He wastes no time in bringing his oldest friend up to speed. “I have MS and I didn’t tell anybody.” And in classic Dolores Landingham fashion, she replies, “Yeah. So you’re having a little bit of a day.” She gives him the pep talk that he needs, full of common sense and tough love. Through talking to her, he reminds himself how much there is yet to be done, how much he still could do to help the country and the people. Finally, she tells him, “you know, if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run because you think it’s going to be too hard, or you think you’re going to lose…well, God, Jed. I don’t even want to know you.” She leaves, and he stands outside, staring up at the raining sky.
The next seven or so minutes that follow are some of the best in television history. Even people who haven’t been particular fans of the show watch this clip, and are blown away. Aaron Sorkin is a fan of music, and knows exactly how to use the right song to his and its fullest potential. In this case, its Dire Straits’s “Brothers In Arms”. Charlie (Dule Hill) comes over with the President’s raincoat, telling him it’s time to go to the press conference. President Bartlet says not a word, ignores the coat, and heads out. One of my very favourite bits here is how Charlie then takes off his own raincoat, and leaves it behind. He’s got no idea what’s going on or why the President wants to go raincoat-less into the stormy night, but dammit, if that’s what we’re doing, that’s what we’re doing.
Mark Knopfler sings and everyone else gradually falls into step behind the President, no one saying a word. The motorcade drives through the rainy night, past National Cathedral, where a confused janitor is picking a cigarette butt up off the floor. Upon arrival at the press conference, the President accepts a towel to dry his face, but doesn’t break stride on his way to the podium. CJ whispers a reminder to him that he should call on the medical guy first. The camera follows his gaze to the medical expert, and then past him to one of the familiar faces from the White House press corps. “Mister President,” she asks, “can you tell us right now if you’re planning to seek a second term?”
It’s like no one is daring to breathe. President Bartlet, claiming there was some noise in the room, asks her to please repeat the question. She does so. And now the camera hops around from staffer to staffer, as they all wait to see what he will say. Some of the senior staff is watching him on a monitor, and it is Leo (John Spencer), the President’s best friend and Chief of Staff, who turns away from the monitor to say to no one in particular, “watch this.”
Remember how I said that the first time I watched these was when I was working at a summer camp? I would watch them in the evenings, after my then-4-year-old had gone to bed, and her babysitter was settled in her own room. To this day, I feel a little bad about waking them both up, when I screamed don’t you screw this up you put your hands in your pockets and turn away and smile come on you know you can do it. I wasn’t disappointed. Just like Mrs Landingham had seen him do so many years ago, his hands found his pockets, and the very slightest smile crept across his face. The credits rolled, and I wished for a cigarette for the first time since I’d quit six years prior. Not really, but it was that kind of a relief.
It’s been 16 years since my diagnosis, and at least a decade since my indoctrination into The West Wing. I could write a whole other thing on the show overall, how it has become, in addition to entertainment, kind of therapeutic. Strangely, for the past few years (since 2016, to be exact), for some reason, it often brings me comfort to lose myself in the idea of a government run by smart, dedicated, good-hearted people, trying to do the right thing. Go figure. And while the MS story arc never gets any easier to watch, I often find myself taking comfort in that too. Like I said to Aaron Sorkin, the idea of having my illness and still being able to run the country is good for my morale.