I am re-watching season 2 of West Wing. In the later episodes of the season, President Bartlet's multiple sclerosis becomes a big issue – that he has the disease, that he hadn't disclosed it previously, etc.

The thing is: there seems nothing which precipitates this "crisis" aside from Vice President Hoynes having made some motions indicating that he might be running for President in the next cycle, with the presumption that Bartlet was not going to run for a second term.

This seems a pretty thin plot point to trigger the whole "secret illness" drama which unfolds. Is there anything else? No reporter had the information, no threat of Bartlet being "outted" by Hoynes.

The whole thing seems pretty fabricated – more than I recall from first viewing of the series. In fact, without all the 'drama' – there seems really no reason that Bartlet has to deal with disclosing or not disclosing his MS at that point in his Presidency. (It's irrelevant what he "should" have done, etc).

Am I missing some triggering plot point as to why his MS is such an issue at that point in his Presidency?


2 Answers 2


The precipitating event is in “He Shall, from Time to Time.” The president comes down with the flu and Leo McGarry notices that Abbey Bartlett has an unexpectedly extreme level of concern over it (cutting a trip short and talking about post-poning another even though the fever is going down). He confronts her about it, and she admits that the president has multiple sclerosis:

ABBEY Leo, I came by because I wanted to ask do you think there's a huge downside to postponing for a few days?

LEO Did the fever go back up?

ABBEY No, it's going down.

LEO Abbey? What's going on?

ABBEY Nothing. Uh, like I say--

LEO What should I know that I don't know?

ABBEY I just thought we should be on the safe side.

LEO Why'd you cancel your trip?

ABBEY Because he has the--

LEO Because that President has a temperature. The President's not in nursery school.

ABBEY Look, if it's a problem to postpone--

LEO It's not a problem to postpone. Of course, I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize the President's health. What I'm saying...

ABBEY Leo, please.

LEO [sits] Hey, hey, hey. This is me. This has happened before. I see you trying to cover the panic. I see you prescribing medication. I think you're giving him shots. What does he have he can't tell people?

ABBEY He has the flu.

LEO Ugh! You would not have come back for the flu, Abbey.

ABBEY He fainted. He was running a fever.

LEO Abbey?

A pause. Almost in tears, Abbey decides to tell him the truth.

ABBEY He has multiple sclerosis, Leo.

LEO [shocked] Oh, Abbey.

ABBEY A fever could be life threatening.

Abbey tries hard to fight back tears, but couldn't. A tear falls from her eye.

Now Leo knows about the MS, and the cat is out of the bag. Previously, only Jed and Abbey Bartlett knew about it and so kept it a secret, but once the inner circle starts expanding, it becomes harder to keep—and the risk to those who know, should it ever be publicized, becomes greater. After all, Leo figured out something was up, and the President is probably the most scrutinized figure in the world—if Leo did, it seems like only a matter of time before someone else does. Sure enough, it turns out that C.J. had seen something, though unlike Leo she did not confront the Bartletts about it.

A major theme with this portion of The West Wing is the President’s guilt about the entire thing. When only Abbey and Jed knew about it, they were responsible only for the consequences to themselves (or at least so they told themselves). They could rationalize their behavior, feel they were only putting themselves at risk and taking responsibility for their actions and lives. But now, because he knows, Leo could be in major trouble if he kept this secret. Jed does not want to do that to a friend, to put a friend in that position. Coming clean is the only way to save Leo from having to risk it. It takes some time to admit it, but Jed’s conclusion in “H. Con-172” (S03E10) becomes more and more inescapable as the issue is discussed: “I was wrong.”

  • I would also like to add that when Toby found out, his outrage was a pretty clear indication that this is something that couldn't be kept from the public.
    – Zip Zap J
    Commented Jun 28, 2018 at 20:03

If I'm understanding your question right, you're asking why the issue suddenly became a big deal at this point in his presidency (about three years in). KRyan's answer is part of it but I think the real issue is that since Hoynes ran his own polling numbers, something that you'd make if you were about to run for president since they won't matter that far out from when he would ordinarily be running, he basically laid out the breadcrumbs to infer that he knows he'll be running in the next election, and if Toby can figure it out then a reporter can figure it out too.

So, in the fiction of The West Wing, the election of Bartlet was in 1998, and the re-election was in 2002 (two years off from real life). Hoynes would not ordinarily be running in 2002 - he'd either be re-elected along with Bartlet and then run in 2006 or he'd be defeated with Bartlet in 2002 so he wouldn't try and run until 2006. But if he's doing his own polling numbers for 2002 then either he's going to give his own president a primary challenge (i.e., remove himself from the ticket and try and to get the nomination instead of Bartlet, which might be unprecedented historically) or he thinks/knows that Bartlet isn't going to run in 2002.

The turning point is in the episode "17 People" when Toby makes the connection and Leo figures out that if Toby can figure it out then a reporter (whose job is to investigate) can figure it out.

Believe it or not someone made a website dissecting this episode. Something you might not instantly notice about this episode is that it doesn't have many actors in it - C.J. is absent entirely, for example. The real life reason is that a lot of Season 2's budget was spent in the early episodes with the shooting aftermath so they needed to have some less expensive episodes to shoot, so Sorkin used it as an excuse to write a mini-play (something he's experienced with, A Few Good Men was originally a play).

According to the website, these are the breadcrumbs (some of which occurred in the previous episode)

  • In years past, John Hoynes made his money & reputation from the oil industry
  • His oil-lobby-chairman friend, Philip Sluman, has just testified to the FTC, complaining about the Bartlet administration’s regulations and fuel standards
  • Leo wants Bill Trotter (the energy secretary) to give a public rebuttal, which Toby decides to mention first to Hoynes (who is “gonna be pretty unhappy”)
  • To Toby’s surprise, Hoynes actually volunteers to step in for Trotter and condemn Big Oil himself
  • Toby accepts this offer, but is confused about why Hoynes would do this—as are Josh and Sam
  • The next day, Hoynes does as he promised, and does it well, which makes Toby further curious
  • Digging further, he finds Hoynes’s private polling (asking voters about his public image), plus news of a speech Hoynes will give in New Hampshire titled “Clean Air Industry In The High-Tech Corridor Of The Industrial Northeast”
  • Hoynes has, however, secretly scheduled this speech in the middle of an official, benign, ordinary, three-day camping trip to Killington, Vermont
  • Toby reveals all this to Leo, who is speechless

So basically since the polling was something you'd do if you were planning on running soon (not 5+ years away) and Toby was able to figure it out, they decided to let him in on the MS thing and since his reaction was that they'd need to get lawyers involved soon, it became a big deal very quickly. It's possible if Toby had said "ok, that's no big deal, we should just continue keeping that a secret" they might have just continued without revealing it to the public, but he didn't.

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