The West Wing characters: President Josiah Bartlet
“More than any time in recent history, America’s destiny is not of our own choosing. We did not seek nor did we provoke an assault on our freedom and our way of life. We did not expect nor did we invite a confrontation with evil. Yet the true measure of a people’s strength is how they rise to master that moment when it does arrive. Forty four people were killed a couple of hours ago at Kennison State University. Three swimmers from the men’s team were killed and two others are in critical condition. When, after having heard the explosion from their practice facility, they ran into the fire to help get people out. Ran in to the fire. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels, but every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard. We will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.”
I would have chosen a shorter quote if I had been any less moved by the poeticism of that particular one. Though, there were an innumerable number of potential speeches that Jed’s delivered over the course of the show that could have been worthy contenders. From the moment the President first walks in, he is the leader. You can see it in the way that Bradley and Allison look at Martin in the scene, with utter admiration. No one could do for Bartlet, what Martin Sheen did. The compatibility of Sorkin’s writing and Martin’s delivery meant that every speech Bartlet ever gave, whether in front of a podium or not, was compelling, intelligent and perfectly cadent. Another particular favourite being that of The Midterms, directed at Dr Jenna Jacobs on the subject of homosexuality.
It wasn’t just as leader of the free world that Jed Bartlet shone. The complexity of his morality and his relationships was gripping. The complex relationships that Jed had with Leo, Charlie, his children, the First Lady, Josh, CJ, Toby and Sam was a central element of The West Wing to me. There was a curious balance of intimidation and friendly rapport. In Two Cathedrals, we see the President describe Josh Lyman as his son when talking to God following Mrs Landingham’s funeral, and it is not the only occasion when it is suggested that Jed sees his senior staff with the eyes of a father. It is impossible, at that point, to not feel what he feels. It is a sign of a truly great actor when no matter their flaws, the audience is feeling with the character. As an agnostic, as well, watching Jed’s relationship with God be explored was a focal point of the show. He was a character with an unavoidable awareness of the horrors of the world and yet he could still, at the end of it all, believe in God. For a show, or a character, to accomplish the ability to make viewers contemplate - to take in the profound topics that it explores, is so incredibly rare and so incredibly special.
Finally, as Will Arnett recently said, even dramatic characters should have catchphrases, and Jed’s is a pretty great one. I think it has echoed repeatedly through the seven years of The West Wing, but it was Jed Bartlet who first said the concluding words in the pilot episode. “What next?”