Set after "Posse Comitatus"

Characters property of NBC and Aaron Sorkin. Simon Donovan property of those big NBC execs in the sky. *sniff* No infringement intended.

Because of a Cigarette

He was so busy counting silently, trying to keep himself from thinking, that he almost didn't hear his best friend speak.


Bartlet didn't look at Leo, but he responded. "Hmm?"

"Nothing. Just -- you haven't spoken since I got the call, is all," Leo said.

"Do you remember last year," Jed answered, "when the press wanted to know why I wanted to be president?"

"I remember."

Bartlet sighed and shrugged. He didn't quite know why he was thinking about that. His opponent at the time had fallen down on the answer, but his current opponent probably couldn't spell 'opponent', so the problem was getting worse, not better. Still, they'd asked him, they'd asked Bartlet: Why do you want to be president?

"Sitting here in this limo," he told Leo, "after having stepped off the face of the world, I can't seem to remember what I told them. I mean, it -- it satisfied them, whatever it was, but I just -- I can't seem to remember."

Leo didn't know what to say, which didn't matter; Bartlet's mind was moving on to other things. Crime. Boy, I don't know.

The press would love him, and his staff would kill him, if he were asked the same question tonight. Moments ago he had stood on the sidewalk and watched his press secretary walk past him to the car. He had an answer now.

"Crime. Boy, I don't know." Pretty soon Rob Ritchie would be saying, "Welfare. Boy, I don't know." and "War. Boy, I don't know." and "One in five children live in poverty. Boy, I don't know." Except he wouldn't know the numbers because a man like that wasn't going to know the numbers. Or maybe he would remember them, but he wouldn't connect them with real children, any more than he would connect crime with real crime victims, with the press secretary trying not to cry in front of the president, and not succeeding.

Bartlet tried to keep his mind on Ritchie; he was furious and fueled by it. But the back, disobedient part of his mind wouldn't focus on anything but the other thing that had happened tonight. Assassination. Boy, I don't know. If he let himself relax, he started wondering what Ritchie would have done. Whether he would have given the order, whether he would given it sooner.

"I broke my own law tonight," Bartlet said.

"It was the only option," Leo reminded him.

But Bartlet shook his head. He'd had a man killed, just hours after smiling with him in the office, in the Office, but refusing to shake his hand. Had Shareef known? When he stepped off the plane in the middle of nowhere, had he thought back to the Oval, to the nonexistant rash on the hand of the United States president? The problem was getting worse, not better.

And a while back, there was a problem when the press wanted to know why Bartlet wanted to be president. He was pretty sure he hadn't answered anything about five-hour plays in New York, but he loved the theater. He hated being interrupted during a production. Hated being pulled out of the room and told Simon Donovan was killed in some stupid-ass cop-drama cliche hold-up. Gun control. Boy, I don't know.

Abbey was staying in the city for a fundraiser, and Jed was glad. He missed her already, but he couldn't have talked with her about this, not the way he could talk to Leo about it, silently, just by sitting here. As silently, anyway, as anything could be in New York City. But there was noise even in this limo. The leather seats squeaked whenever either of them moved. There were sirens all around them, that was part of traveling as the president, but if he hadn't been president there would still have been sirens. Maybe not so many.

Leo was studying him as though trying to figure out how much of a toll this night had taken. Bartlet wasn't sure how to explain what he was feeling -- that he felt worse, lower, scummier than he ever had, and yet -- yet how he felt almost okay. So many terrible things had happened tonight that there was just no way to explain that he felt energized, that he felt on fire, that he felt something he hadn't felt in a very long time. He wanted again, he wanted more than he ever had, even during the first campaign -- he wanted to keep being president of this ordinary nation.

"I could lose," Bartlet said after a while.


"I could lose," he repeated. "And all this crap would go away. I could retire. Kick back with a hammock and some books. Write my senators. Vote for Sam Seaborn in a few years. I could do it."

"Yes, sir," Leo said wearily. "That is, if we all survived the Ritchie administration."

"Aha. And we come to why I'm not going to let that happen."

Leo glanced at him hopefully, and Bartlet nodded.

"I'm glad," Leo answered.

"Thank Rob Ritchie," Bartlet confided. "Do you want to know what that -- that -- that --"

"That distinquished governor of Florida?"

"--that lake of uneducated Republican dribble said when I told him about Donovan?"

Leo sat up in alarm. "Wait, you talked to him?"

"He said, and I quote, 'Crime. Boy, I don't know.'"

"Sir, when did you talk to him?"

"I snuck off for a smoke, and he materialized. 'Crime. Boy, I don't know.' That's it. That was his statement on the whole -- I mean, for heaven's --"

"Mr. President?"

"'Crime. Boy, I don't know,'" Bartlet muttered.

Leo sized him up and then said, "Sir, is there such a thing as an educated lake of Republican dribble?"

"Leo, what if Ritchie were president right now?"

"The Loony Tunes theme would be the national anthem," Leo supplied without missing a beat.

Bartlet didn't smile. "I meant the thing."

"The thing."

"With the -- Leo, with the kind of power I had in my hands tonight --"

"What would Ritchie do with that power?" Leo finished for him. "You're wondering if you could trust that man to decide who to assassinate?"

"I'm not wondering; I know I couldn't."

"You're probably right," Leo said, and paused, as though trying to decide whether it was too soon to make a joke. Since he'd already made two, he went ahead. "I mean, there'd be all that time we'd waste teaching the man how to spell 'assassinate.'"

It started as a chuckle, but soon they were both laughing out loud, breaking the awful tension that had descended on them sometime last week. Bartlet ignored the nearly overwhelming guilt he felt for laughing. There was still CJ crying in the car behind. There was still crime, and the punk in the convenient store wasn't the only person who'd committed one tonight.

But what harm would laughing do? And that laughter, coupled with fury and frustration at Rob Ritchie, fueled Bartlet all the way back to D.C. He went straight to the office -- none of this good night's sleep foolishness -- and Leo with him. He was restless; he was on fire. He spent the whole night researching obscure crime statistics, but let Leo escape before dawn.

And then, at dawn, there were two arrivals: Ron Butterfield, and the morning paper.


and Ron Butterfield.

"How you doing this morning, Ron?" Bartlet asked, tearing his eyes from the paper. Because reporters were paid not to be respectful, there was a photo of CJ sitting on a bench in the city, crying into her hands.

"Fine, thank you, sir," Ron Butterfield lied to the president.

"Ron, I'm so sorry about Simon."

"Thank you, sir," his agent repeated.

Crime. Boy, I don't know. Twenty-four hours ago Bartlet hadn't wanted this job. And twenty-four hours ago things had been a lot better than they were right now. He hadn't expected the guilt about Shareef to be this crushing. He certainly hadn't expected a secret service agent to get shot in a convenient store hold-up. But this morning, he wanted the job very much.

Because of a cigarette, and a conversation with an idiot. It was bizarre how fury and frustration drove away the guilt, and even the sleeplessness. For three nights after New York, the president slept well, exhausted from the day's campaign. And every day really was a campaign -- everything he did now counted, everything would show up on a flyer in a voter's mailbox before he could count to sixty -- which was what he did when the guilt started to catch up. Count to sixty, or at least to ten, if he didn't have time to take a minute. Count to sixty and think, crime rates are sky-high; just ask CJ. Ritchie hates gun control; just talk to Josh about that. Something's got to give; just ask Ron Butterfield.

And he could go on. Not without the certainty that he had joined the league of ordinary leaders; but determined to save his country from sliding below the other names on the list.





"Fifty-eight ... Fifty-nine ... Sixty." And he could go on.


Back to Wednesday Night Rants / Back to The Western World

Back to The Dark Side of Tuffy's Mind