Disclaimer: my lunacy is only surpassed by my insomnia. And they don’t belong to me.
From the back cover: Who’s going to step in if the President can no longer lead?
Et Tu, Brute?
It was a silent night, an especially dark and still night, unusual in the city that ruled the world. A slimy darkness hung over its monuments and palaces, driving its powerful people inside to toss in a restless, dreamless sleep.
It was a night where the world could change, and in the morning the people who had slept wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, while those who had remained awake would never find the words to describe the transformation.
In the White House, two men were awake.
Leo McGarry scrubbed tiredly at his eyes and sighed at the stack of memos that leaned heavily into the center of his desk. He shook his head and his body rose with his mind’s unspoken command to go home.
“Leo,” the soft word stopped him. The Chief of Staff looked up at the darkened door that connected him to the Oval Office. The Chief Executive stood in its frame, a black shadow against a darker backdrop.
“Mr. President, how long have you been standing there?”
A faint movement from the door could have been the ghost of a smile. “For a bit.”
“I thought you went up to the residence,” Leo said.
“I did. I’m back. Walk with me, my friend. And get your coat, because we’re going to the rose garden,” the President replied.
Although it was the middle of winter, McGarry was used to his friend’s bizarre love of “crisp” air.
“Awright,” he sighed. “But I think you’re trying to kill me.”
Leo retrieved his coat and followed the strangely quiet President outside. When they reached the rose garden, Barlet paused, his back turned.
“A rose garden at 2 a.m. in February is a bit depressing, sir,” McGarry said. After a beat he continued half to himself. “What are you hoping to find out here?”
“Leo, I’ve decided to run for re-election.”
“Ah . . . okay. That’s good, because I’ve been running you for two years . . .” The humor fell flat in the night that was too thick to hold such things.
“There’s going to be hell to pay,” the President continued. “In my bedroom, in my doctor’s office, this isn’t going to go well.” Barlet half-turned toward McGarry. “But I’m not done, Leo. I’m not going to permit anything to stop me. Not even myself.”
McGarry suddenly understood. “If you’re worried about your MS . . .” he started. To his surprise, he saw his friend’s face twist into a bitter smile.
“Ah, the perfect segue, Leo. You would bring up the reason I brought you out here before I was ready.” The President lapsed into silence. Leo waited as long as he could stand it.
“Sir . . .?”
With startling suddenness, the most powerful man in the world rounded on his friend, who unintentionally stepped back.
“I’m running again, Leo, and nothing can stop me.” His voice was vibrant, but then sunk into low tones. “But, ah, in two years . . . or three . . . things could be different. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“No,” Barlet continued. “You don’t. The point could come when I’m not strong enough to be President. My judgment could go, my rationality, my ability to make decisions. If that happens, then things will have to change.”
“Sir, you know I’ll stand by you.”
Barlet smiled faintly. “I know, Leo. You’ve given everything for me. You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You’re my apostle, my knight, my best friend. And you’re the only one I can trust.”
Leo ducked his head. “Sir . . .”
“I’m not done, Leo. I was about to say you’re the only one I can trust . . . to betray me.” Bartlet looked directly into the other man’s eyes and watched the shock slowly register.
Leo looked down at the ground and swallowed hard, then slowly raised his head, every line of his body vibrating with disbelief and fear.
“I . . . I don’t understand.”
“Yes you do,” Barlet said with faint humor. “The time may come when I’m not fit to be President anymore, when my presence will hurt this country you and I love so much. But I might not realize the damage I’m causing. I might not even be capable to realizing it, and that’s where you come in. If I win this thing – and I will -- I want you to draw up my letter of resignation and bring it to me to sign. Then you can keep it in a safe place . . . just in case.”
McGarry shook his head. “No. No. How can you ask me to do this?”
Quick as lightning, the President grabbed his friend’s shoulder hard enough to make the other man flinch. “You’re going to do this because your loyalty is stronger to this country than it is to me.” Barlet’s voice was rough and ugly. “You once stood in front of me and said that if I wanted to destroy the world, I could, but that I’d have to kill you first because you’d raise up an army to stop me. I’m not asking for an army, Leo, I’m asking for one kamikaze pilot.
“So you’re going to take my hand, right now,” he continued, “and swear to me on your life that if my health makes me too dangerous to be President, you’ll destroy me. Promise me that even when I scream at you and accuse you of being a coward akin to Judas, you’ll have the strength to take me down, because you’re the only one who can. You’re the only one who can stand between the injuries my madness could cause and this country. ” Barlet could feel his friend shaking under his iron grip. He squeezed his free hand into a fist and looked away. “I’m just sorry you’ll have to bear the brunt of those injuries yourself.”
“Jed . . . please . . .”
“SWEAR IT TO ME!”
Leo shook his head frantically. “Do you know what this will do? You’re giving me the power to reduce you to rubble; you’re trusting a man with EVERYTHING – a man who will no longer to be able to trust you! Every time you look at me, you’ll see someone judging you, watching you, waiting for you to slip. Nothing will be the same between us!” He was near panic, and sweat stood out on his face despite the cold air. “And where the hell am I supposed to keep the letter that could destroy your presidency!?”
Barlet released McGarry’s arm. “In your breast pocket, over your heart,” he said mildly. The President watched the resistance fade from his friend’s eyes and pain take its place.
“You have my word, Mr. President,” he said in defeat.
“Thank you.” The two men stood apart, silent. Then: “My apostle, my knight, my best friend. My Judas, my Lancelot, my Brutus. Good night, Mr. McGarry.” The President of the United States turned and left his Chief of Staff alone.
For a long time afterward, a solitary figure stood in the rose garden, his breath faintly visible in the cold air. He was the only breathing thing in the night, surrounded by the slumbering roses and their sentinels, the unsleeping thorns.
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