Illness, Lies, and the Television Version (May 2001)

by Dana Snyder-Grant


I share a chronic illness with the President of the United States. President Bartlet, of TV’s “The West Wing,” has multiple sclerosis. In remission for the last eight years, he has kept silent about his illness.


When I first watched this story unfold, I was stunned. That MS, an illness about which many are misinformed, could be portrayed with accuracy to the television public was remarkable. MS is often depicted as an illness that “strikes victims” who “end up in wheelchairs.” That the illness varies widely from person to person ― there are progressive, moderate, and benign courses ― is often overlooked. Nor do the ambiguities of MS for those who “look so well” but feel so lousy get attention. It may have been unrealistic that someone who works long hours and has the most stressful job in the world could have an illness whose primary symptom is an exhausting fatigue. But it was exciting that millions of viewers could receive a fine education about illness, and life, from this drama.


I began to watch “The West Wing” with regularity. MS did not often figure in the weekly plots. The illness was important, but it was not a big deal. I became engaged with the characters on the President’s staff. I was proud of C.J., his press secretary. A confident and personable woman, she was a role model for all female viewers. I was enamored with Charlie, the President’s personal aide. He was the epitome of cool, not batting an eye at the President’s idiosyncratic demands for the perfect Thanksgiving carving knife. When the character of Joey Lucas, played by Marlee Matlin, was introduced, I was tickled. A presidential pollster, Lucas happened to have a serious hearing impairment, as does Matlin. Again, we were given the message that disability does not have to dominate one’s life.


In the last few weeks of the second season, the President’s staff found out about the MS. Some felt betrayed; a few showed concern for Bartlet’s health. All were anxious about the public’s reaction. In the season’s final episode, the President disclosed his condition to the world.


Did the President lie to the public through a sin of omission? How much of this politician’s life did the public have the right to know? Did he have the right to keep private about an illness that can be degenerative in some, but that in him has been quiet and only a nuisance? It’s a big deal to have a serious illness, but is it a big deal if you can still live a full and productive life? Sixty years after F.D.R., we still debate whether or not to acknowledge Roosevelt’s wheelchair.


Truth and honesty are central subjects in American politics. The interpersonal complexities of hiding the truth parallel the political ramifications of keeping secrets. People with chronic illness often face the issue of disclosure. Some, living with invisible symptoms, choose to hide illness from friends and colleagues. They fear the loss of their companions or their jobs. But in shutting down this part of themselves, they lose the intimacy that genuine connection brings, and they deny a part of themselves. In this fictional drama, the President’s pollster assessed the public’s reaction before the disclosure. People overwhelmingly responded by rejecting a politician who developed a serious illness, demanding that he step down. Would this, in truth, be the case if the fictional scenario actually happened? Is it an irrational fear of the unpredictability of some illnesses that is at play, or is it a rational response to the restrictions that illness imposes? Can the lessons in compassion and living with limitations override the possibility that the illness might progress?


What I appreciate about how the MS has been handled in “The West Wing” is that it has not been the central issue of the show, even though it has been a serious matter. It is just part of life. Politically, the MS has highlighted issues of honesty and privacy. Spiritually, the show has confronted issues of loss and vulnerability. The second season’s final episode also showed the President in mourning for his beloved secretary, who was killed by a drunk driver. The story went beyond the fears that can be raised by a single focus on the random nature of ill health. The President railed against God about the unfairness of haphazard events in the world. And doesn’t such randomness confront us all?


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