"Coop, do you have...?" Jed Bartlet stands in the doorway of his private study, looking tired and frustrated, and his agent,
knowing that what he is about to do is wrong, does it anyway.
"Yes, sir." Coop reaches into his pocket, withdraws a slender silver object and starts to hand it to the President. He
hesitates slightly before dropping the item into the President's waiting hand. "Sir, the First Lady..."
"Will never know," Jed interrupts smoothly. "In fact, Coop, don't be so quick to jump to conclusions. I'm just going to
burn some secret government documents."
Oh, if only it could be that easy.
"Yes, sir," Coop says again, letting the tiniest of smiles cross his lips before his expression returns to its customary
look of grave vigilance.
"Thanks." Jed closes his hand over the cool surface of the cigarette lighter as he turns to go back into his study. The
door swings shut behind him, closing with a soft click, leaving him alone with his sins.
As he lights the cigarette, he gives a mirthless smile. This particular transgression is so minute it doesn't even register
on the scale of the other sins he has committed. The first whorl of smoke escapes his lips and drifts away, quickly fading
in the still air of the room. It disappears, yet leaves a lingering residue of scent. Like all sins, it leaves something behind,
intangible yet powerful.
Jed has never before spent too much time thinking about things he cannot change. That is not who he is. To waste time concentrating
on the inevitable and the immutable would be sacrilege. But, lately, he cannot escape the parade of sins which follows him,
making him all too aware that he is a failed man.
There has always been a gap between his vision of who he wants to be and the reality of who he is. But when did the difference
between the two widen to such mammoth proportions?
Priest... President... Liar... Murderer...
Jed sighs deeply and rests his head against the back of the chair. It is not often that he is allowed to sit like this,
in his favorite chair in the study, a drink close at hand. If someone opens the door, they will see him as a peaceful, thoughtful
man, the President of the United States, wise and responsible. But the appearance will be deceptive. It is only an illusion
that he sits idly, his mind empty of painful thoughts.
He closes his eyes, suddenly weary. Yeah, that would be nice. Peaceful contemplation, with no disruptive thoughts, no guilt.
Surely there were drugs that would help him achieve such a lofty state? But no one was offering any. Actually, it was quite
the opposite. Stanley Keyworth told him he needed to meet his demons head on, think about them, and flounder in the unwelcome
emotions brought on by his tormented introspection.
It really seemed like a futile undertaking to him. Why spend time thinking about things he couldn't change?
He knows there are some things in this existence that are totally inescapable. You are born. You die. It actually sounds
easy, put like that.
Of course, a lot of things can happen in the meantime, but it fundamentally comes down to those two things. Those two things
which never change.
But Fate isn't going to make his life easy. In fact, it seems to delight in complicating things, sometimes giving him an
unexpected break, but more often throwing him curves he cannot negotiate. The answers have been hard to find, sometimes impossible
to find. He has stumbled repeatedly, trying to outwit Fate and failing miserably.
Up until now, Jed has lived what could be called a charmed life. It has not been totally without its rocky patches, but
the rocks were mostly gravel and not boulders. Unfortunately, he has learned too late that, when you bend over to look at
your scraped knee, an unexpected avalanche is apt to knock you over. Or sweep you away entirely.
That's how he feels now. Swept away by inevitable circumstance and totally out of control.
He prides himself on his intelligence. He should be able to use his mind to find a resolution to his problems. But it seems
that Fate is toying with him, giving him the considerable gift of genius, but making it impossible for him to use it.
He realizes that his intellect is an accidental blessing, and that it is not enough, because this job requires him to be
wise, not smart. It requires strength, insight and strong moral values. He believes that he possesses these attributes, that
he can exercise wisdom, but he knows he often falls short, dismissing his better instincts. Time and time again, he lets his
mind seduce him into making choices which he knows, in his heart, are wrong. Character and decency should be inescapable.
Yet he seems to be trying to evade them again and again. When his actions are less than honorable, he uses his mind to
try to justify them, instead of taking the moral path. When had he stopped seeing his options clearly?
Jed opens he eyes and shakes his head, as if to clear it of unpleasant thoughts. Lifting his glass, he takes a long swallow,
then frowns as the liquor leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. But this is nothing new. The bitterness always seems to be with
him, reminding him of his failures.
More than once, he has bungled opportunities to rise to the occasion. The multiple sclerosis was simply a quirk of Fate.
His number came up and his destiny was inescapable. He accepts that now, but the road to acceptance was a long and tortured
one. He denied the reality and tried to hide his condition, thinking he could use his brain to outwit the opponent. But, inevitably,
he couldn't pretend. When all the stakes were on the table, the disease would win.
He looks down at the glass in his hand, now empty except for the melting ice. Perhaps if he drinks enough, just this one
time, he can forget all these things which burden him. He cannot alter any of it, but perhaps he can temporarily lessen the
pain. Going to the liquor cabinet, he makes another drink, stronger than the first. He also wants another cigarette. What
is one more sin?
He goes to the window and stares out at the night sky, thinking, for some odd reason, about Toby. Poor Toby, trying to
act as Jed's moral compass was a thankless task. Toby had immediately seen the bigger picture when they had finally told him
about the MS. It was the first indication he had that those closest to him would be anything other than supportive.
But Toby had not offered his unequivocal support. Toby had been angry. He realized that, undeniably, an entire electorate
had been deceived. But Jed was stunned and hurt that Toby's first response had been a tirade about the deception, instead
of a sensitively worded question about his health. He had tried to bluff, but Toby's wrath stopped him.
Toby could see right through him and cut to the heart of the matter. He might lack finesse, but he always had the facts
Jed remembers that, from that moment forward, the act of disclosure was inescapable.
Then had come the fight to change public opinion and justify his position. Was he not entitled to some modicum of privacy
regarding his person? Apparently not.
Was he not allowed the opportunity to overcome his condition? He might argue that the MS had not incapacitated him in any
way detrimental to the office, but he wasn't entirely sure about that. Once a man falls face down on the Oval Office carpet,
he cannot avoid the realization that he can't trust his body to support his mind.
And so it began. The hearings, followed by the censure. Inescapable, and probably overdue. His dearest friends, his staunchest
allies, and, above all, his family had suffered too much for his fraud. In some ways, the condemnation had even given him
peace of mind. To have it all over, all of it out in the open, was somehow cleansing. It could have been much, much worse.
Maybe he would be feeling better now if it had been.
He returns to his chair and takes the last sip of liquor from the glass, wondering if the burning in his gut is caused
by the scotch whiskey or by his overwhelming guilt. Although he tries to hide it, and generally succeeds, his sins torture
him. He must be careful. Even Dr. Keyworth can be allowed only an expurgated view of his psyche. He must keep to himself the
endless litany of mistakes which haunt him.
And now this new shadow, the covert operation, invades his peace. A bill of goods handed to him by his most trusted advisors,
all of them certain it was the right thing to do. It had not been inescapable, but it had been made to seem so, and once again
his mind chose the popular answer rather than the wise one. It was nothing less than murder. How had he come to be judge,
jury and executioner? The guilt is heavy on him, and he finds it impossible to bluster against it.
Priest... President... Liar... Murderer...
With sudden anger, he bangs the glass down on the table, the ice rattling harshly against its crystal prison. The sound
seems unusually loud, grating on his nerves. Can he find no peace?
The door opens and he looks up warily, not wanting to see anyone, afraid that they might be able to read the emotions in
As she surely could.
"Jed," Abbey's voice was soft. "It's late."
He nods and turns his head away. After a moment, he hears her sigh and the soft click of the door closing as she walks
Yes, it is late. Perhaps too late.
And he cannot escape.
Click here to read the sequel, Crisis of Conscience II: Pathway to Escape.