I've been watching Season 1 of the West Wing with Jack and we've just watched episode….whatever…..the one where the President has the opportunity to save a guy who's on death row. Long-story-short, without Bartlett’s intervention to commute the sentence the dead man walking will be toast. The episode sees him seeking the advice of all those who come across his path during that most crucial of days (and all tell him he should commute). Finally, as midnight, the time of execution rolls around, Bartlett, a reasonably devout (whatever that means) Catholic is in The Oval Office with his family priest (he’s already spoken to the Pope on the phone – as you do).
There’s a really powerful interchange about how Bartlett wants to be addressed…..
FATHER CAVANAUGH: I don’t know how to address you. Would you prefer Jed or Mr. President?
BARTLET: To be honest, I prefer Mr. President. You understand why, right? It’s not ego.
FATHER CAVANAUGH: I didn’t think it was.
BARTLET: There are certain decisions I have to make while I’m in this room. Do I send troops into harm’s way? Which fatal disease gets the most research money? It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office.
FATHER CAVANAUGH: Then Mr. President it is.
…..and then Bartlett talks about the fact that he’s been unsure what to do about the death row guy, and he’s deeply, deeply troubled.
FATHER CAVANAUGH: Did you pray?
BARTLET: I did, Tom. I know it’s hard to believe, but I prayed for wisdom.
FATHER CAVANAUGH: And none came?
BARTLET: [shakes his head] It never has. And I’m a little pissed off about that. [He looks at his watch, which says it’s a few seconds before midnight. It hits him hard.] [dead serious] I’m not kidding.
FATHER CAVANAUGH: You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, “Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?”
[He pauses. Bartlett looks very upset.]
FATHER CAVANAUGH: Today He’s sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President. Not to mention his son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from him?
[Bartlett is given a note by an aide confirming that the execution has taken place, he crumples the paper and looks desolate.]
FATHER CAVANAUGH: Jed. Would you like me to hear your confession?
BARTLET: Yes, please.
It doesn't get more profound than that, on so many levels.