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The West Wing National Cathedral Scene: Bartlet’s Psalm of Lamentation

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) stands in the center of the National Cathedral looking back over his shoulder
Photo: HBO Max

The West Wing National Cathedral scene is a spectacular feat of television hinging on Martin Sheen’s brilliant performance. The build is slow but the pace is just right and the payoff is perfect. We see Mrs. Landingham’s funeral near the beginning of “Two Cathedrals” and the tension is already palpable. Throughout the episode, President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) has been on the brink, confronting the compounding onslaught of demons that had been building over the past season and a half of The West Wing. This stretch run of about 10 straight absolute classic episodes at the end of the show’s second season is what completely confirmed its status as an all-time great.

President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) stands beneath a stained glass window
Photo: HBO Max

There is a storm around President Bartlet, a storm that has been bearing down on him since the events of “17th and Potomac,” and the storm just gets harder and more dangerous throughout “Two Cathedrals.” Earlier in the episode, which from start to finish is undoubtedly one of the greatest episodes of television ever made, Jed has been reliving his past, battling a storm, and taking advice from the ghostly apparition of his personal secretary and biggest advocate, Mrs. Landingham (Kathryn Joosten) herself.

The structure, the stakes, and the performances are all super intense and infused with meaning and Shakespearean elegance. But it culminates right at the mid-point of the episode with all the other characters (no matter how compelling) off-screen, focusing on President Bartlet alone in what I’ve taken to calling “The West Wing National Cathedral Scene.”

As everyone is leaving the funeral, Leo McGarry (John Spencer) walks over to his old friend and tries to acknowledge both the pain of the loss (“I thought it was a beautiful service. She was a real dame, old friend. A real broad.”) and to push the President ahead (“We got some decisions to make now.”) but the President cannot be soothed. The mask he had been wearing, the one he would have to wear so often in the future, has broken.

Bartlet and Leo (John Spencer) stand in the Cathedral
Photo: HBO Max

Jed just asks Leo to have the Secret Service seal the National Cathedral so the President can have a moment alone in the sanctuary. Leo, as always, does what is asked, but it is clear that he is concerned. The look on John Spencer’s face in that moment, concern and care, mixed with the sheer overwhelming nature of everything that has happened, cannot be overlooked. Leo steps away and closes the door, leaving Jed Bartlet alone and The West Wing National Cathedral scene unfolding on our screens.

Knowing the character of Jed Bartlet as well as we do by this point in the series I think most people expect what comes next to be some sort of prayer, a supplication to God by a faithful servant who has gone astray, like Bartlet’s interactions with the priest back in “Take This Sabbath Day” in Season 1. But that is not what comes, what we get is not the quiet academic supplication of the Economics professor from the patrician New Hampshire family. Instead, we get treated to a passionate sermon full of fire and brimstone. The would-be Job directly calls out this so-called “benevolent God” and lays bare every exposed and damaged part of his soul. The text of the speech is so rich in meaning, imagery, and passion, that I wanted to take it apart exegetically, segment by segment.

“You’re a Son of a Bitch, you know that?”

A Psalm of Lament starts, as this monologue does, with an Invocation, but instead of extolling the virtues of God, Bartlet shouts those words as an opening salvo and admonition. We will follow the general outline of a Psalm throughout, but with each element inverted. This may be a warning to the audience (and to God) that what is to come is going to be unexpected. Even for a stage-like show, this is The West Wing at its most classically dramatic. Martin Sheen is alone on screen for four minutes. Four minutes that seem both like an instant and an eternity. Bartlet is praying, admonishing, cursing God, which still feels powerful.

The idea sticks not so much because we believe, or care, or think that God had abandoned him, but because the deeply Catholic President does so. His faith is fundamental and this torrent of events (Josh’s shooting, the MS revelations, Mrs. Landingham’s death) threatens to overwhelm even his resources and leave him broken, unable to act as the servant of the people he so desperately longs to be. And so the impassioned and embittered man shouts not in awe and admiration, but in accusatory curses. After Bartlet delivers the invocation to the “son of a bitch” he walks slowly up the aisle of the cathedral and continues his lament.

President Bartlet walks with his arms spread wide
Photo: HBO Max

She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that
supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the
mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive.

Usually, the psalmists would then turn to express confidence in the Lord, but here Aaron Sorkin’s script takes it even further than just expressing how much Bartlet’s faith has been broken. By evoking Graham Greene, Sorkin is doubling down on both aspects of Bartlet’s personality. His own well-trod academic and spiritual bonafides are well known, he would of course have a Greene quote on the top of his head to express the profound power of God, but it also reemphasizes what we have seen throughout the episode.

Bartlet’s faith has always been driven by his intellect. The fact that God’s mercy is strange and inconceivable did not start to bother him in this darkness, it always did so. Only now it seems the mercy and wonder are buried entirely under the travails. The lamentation continues with a listing of the psalmist’s complaints, Bartlet’s speech with the ways in which he has been scorned.

Bartlet with his back to the camera walking up the stairs to the inner sacntum
Photo: HBO Max

What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the north Atlantic last year… 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns. Just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers that mail. That’s all it can do.

President Bartlet wants his help to come in the form of answers. Josh Lyman (Brad Whitford) almost died just because he was nearby as gunmen attacked. Left unsaid is the pain and fear Bartlet already feels for Zoe through all of this. Zoe was the target of the gunshot that nearly killed Josh and the pain of that has also been weighing heavily on the President. The tender ship, about which we had never learned the fate until here, was a great addition to the lament, another unknowable suffering poured out on not just the innocent or helpless, but those who, like Josh and Jed and the West Wing staff, are only trying to serve.

As he walks, his pace and speech get quicker and the great and terrible majesty of God looms all around him. Tommy Schlamme’s direction (as always) is so amazingly evocative of the feeling Sorkin’s script is trying to exude. The camera zooms out and shows the whole Cathedral at angles that make the man look smaller and smaller in the room, even as the President’s anger continues to grow.

“Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins.”

Here we get our first bit of untranslated Latin. (With much more still to come.) This phrase simply means “thank you, Lord” but the meaning is inverted here. This phrase pops out of him like he wasn’t even expecting it. Bartlet is clearly repeating the phrase from his thousands of prayers, it leads to his better nature catching up to him and his admission that he lied.

He lied about having MS. But it is also clear in the way he says this that he means much more. He lied when he said he didn’t want to be powerful, he lied when he said he didn’t see himself as the smartest man in the room. He lied and committed many sins, but he did it in the service of what he thought was the greater good. The good that he thought God wanted of him. When these thoughts come into his mind you can see Martin Sheen is only just now getting revved up.

President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) looks toward the camera in the National Cathedral
Photo: HBO Max

Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war,

I’ve raised three children…

That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio?
A deo iusto? A deo scito?

“Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” The President of the United States, on network television, delivered these words and they won’t even be the climax of the admonition. The way Sheen clips and deliver the line is what makes it perfect, he knows the way the character feels and is able to express it, but he also knows that the character can barely believe that he would say such a thing. It scares him, and again he tries to shift back to a more classically acceptable appeal to the divine. As he ascends the stairs to the Inner Sanctuary his mind wanders through all the good he has done… and hopes to do.

Then he once again turns to Latin. The lines translate to “Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?” He is incredulous, his faith has been torn asunder and now he has moved beyond being the Priest or the Psalmist. He is the Prophet crying angrily on the steps of the temple extolling the people to repent or die, only his audience is not “the people ” he is crying out his prophetic admonition directly to the Divine. Bartlet stops at the top of the stairs and extends his arms. His anger overtakes him and he can only express the depths he feels in Latin.

Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci.
Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!

While the psalmists end their laments with trust in God, Bartlett is far beyond that. “To hell with your punishments!” He is done with being toyed around with. “I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.” The pain is too much for him to continue. And Sheen really bites into the final salvo.

“To hell with your punishments! And to hell with you!” The main moral focus of The West Wing, probably the greatest portrayal of a President in popular culture, and one of the most religious and faithful characters ever put on television, tells God to go to hell! The sheer audacity of this performance, this show, and this creator really should have never again been questioned. (Can we spend a moment to think again for a second about the travesty that, despite the love the body had for the series, Martin Sheen never won an Emmy for this role?)

After all of that, Bartlet turns away in anger and starts to walk out of the church. He lights a cigarette, another “sinful lie” that he has hidden from the public. He takes one puff and throws it to the floor, grinding it out with his foot. Then he turns back, betrayal in his eyes and defiance in his voice, to deliver the final line.

Bartlet lights his cigarette
Photo: HBO Max

“You get Hoynes!”

I like to imagine sometimes the ultimate mic drop this moment would have been if the episode had ended here and the first scene of Season 3 had our heroes scrambling around the Oval Office getting ready for a meeting with POTUS only for Tim Matheson to walk through the door instead of Martin Sheen. We of course would have been denied the greatness of President Bartlet and Sheen’s performance for four additional seasons, but it would have had to have left any doubt about the stakes and effectiveness of The West Wing National Cathedral scene behind. “You get Hoynes!” remains the perfect response to the unworthy (because seriously, that guy is awful) but Bartlet didn’t commit to it. The threat here is palpable and he means it, but it can’t be sustained through one last conversation with Mrs. Landingham and a montage set to “Brothers in Arms”.

President Bartlet will leave this scene in a trance, but back in the Oval Office with only his memories of Mrs. Landingham and his own will, he will process what has happened, and what he has to do. He will march into the press conference that could destroy his Presidency and truly become himself again. Jed Bartlet will embrace the lessons he learned with Mrs. Landingham, straighten his back, look off to the left, put his hands in his pockets, and lead us off hopefully into the future. Nothing will ultimately defeat him and we can get through anything. Sometimes though, it takes cursing out God and putting out our cigarettes on the floor to get there.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. They are the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. They live in New York City with their girlfriend and their two chonky cats.

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