NOTE: This page contains some spoilers for "The West Wing," especially third and fourth seasons. If you haven't seen them and want to, advance with caution.
Josiah "Jed" Bartlet is the President of the United States on the NBC drama "The West Wing," played admirably by Martin Sheen. Jed Bartlet is a Democrat from New Hampshire, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence (also a Bartlet). He is married to Dr. Abigail Bartlet, an MD, and has three daughters: Eleanor, Elizabeth, and Zoey. His name is not spelled like the pear.
Josiah Bartlet was born in New Hampshire, where he attended an elite prep school headed by his father; it was there that he met his future Executive Secretary Dolores Landingham. His exact age is never given, but it's usually figured around late 40s to mid 50s. When college time came, he was accepted to Harvard, Yale, and several other extremely prestigious institutions; however, he chose Notre Dame University in Indiana because he was considering the Catholic priesthood. That lasted until he met his future wife, Abigail, and instead he majored in economics. Bartlet went on to graduate with a Ph. D from the London School of Economics and later won his Nobel Prize (what he won it for is never specified).
Back in New Hampshire, the people elected and reelected him to the House of Representatives, and later to two terms as Governor. In the Governor's Mansion, Bartlet grew increasingly disillusioned with his inability to effect real change, the reason he entered politics in the first place. In fact, his day to day affairs often consisted of approving the latest tourism marketing package, which is what we find him doing when best friend and future chief of staff Leo McGarry, who has just ended his career as Secretary of Labor, convinces him to run a seemingly-hopeless race for the Democratic nomination against surefire nominee John Hoynes in an effort to bring the issues Jed cares about to a larger stage. After assembling a crack political campaign staff (Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman (and his fabulous assistant Donna Moss, of course), and C.J. Cregg, headed by McGarry), Bartlet wins both the nomination and the general election in a huge upset, though without a strong popular mandate. He chooses Hoynes as his Vice-President, setting up a great deal of tension between the two in office (the man who is vs. the man who should have been).
The show begins in the first year of his first term, and each successive season portrays more or less one year of time (each season must contain one and only one State of the Union address).
In the first season episode "He Shall, From Time To Time," we learn that eight years ago, long before he was elected President, Bartlet was diagnosed with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis. He is on medication, mostly Betaseron, but the illness could at any time become secondary progressive MS, which involves neural deterioration and impaired judgement, not the sort of thing you look for in your Commander in Chief. His wife, a doctor, is medicating him and otherwise keeping an eye on his symptoms; she vehemently opposed Jed's decision to run for President with this illness, and to appease her he agreed not to seek a second term should he be elected in the first place - a promise that will come back to haunt him. During this time, Supreme Court Justice William Crouch decides to resign under a liberal president, landing Bartlet the blessing and/or curse of choosing a nominee and getting him through the Senate. After choosing and discarding Justice Peyton Cabot Harrison IV (what a name), the President went with Justice Roberto Mendoza. The confirmation process was not easy, but in the end it was successful. However, Bartlet still felt like he was falling into the same trap as before: an inability to really change things. The wonderful episode "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet" saw him and Leo McGarry reverse direction and get moving towards principles rather than politics. The first season ended with "What Kind of Day Has It Been," an assassination attempt by white supremacists on his personal aide Charlie Young (an African-American), who was dating the President's youngest daughter Zoey (not an African-American - you see their problem). Bartlet survived with a minor gunshot wound, though Josh Lyman was badly hurt and remained in critical condition for a while following his injury.
Second season opened with the Bartlet staff recovering from the assassination attempt in the two part episode "In the Shadow of Two Gunmen," which covered Lyman's medical ordeal as well as memories from every staff member of the Bartlet for America campaign and how they came to join it. Sorkin doesn't let up after the opener either; the episode "The Midterms" is an emotional discourse on the ideals and realities of democratic politics (and one of my personal favorites). This is also the first season where we meet his wife, Dr. Abigail Bartlet (played by Stockard Channing) as a regular character. The season arcs through such subplots as Lyman's struggle with post traumatic stress syndrome, Bartlet's battles with an opposition Congress, and finally what to do about his multiple sclerosis. At the end of the second season, the President finally revealed his illness to the American people in the finale "Two Cathedrals," an especially difficult time for him since his Executive Secretary Mrs. Landingham had been killed in a car crash that night. He was then faced with the choice of running for reelection with that hanging around his neck, possibly causing a disastrously divisive Democratic fight for the nomination and hurting local Democrats across the nation. The season ends (on what is possibly the worst cliffhanger in history) just before he announces his decision.
Third season opens with "Manchester," beginning with Bartlet's answer: after a long night of introspection in the Oval Office, confronting especially the memory of Mrs. Landingham and her effects on his course in life, he decides to run for reelection. Third and fourth seasons chronicle the run for reelection, though since the actual election episode happened midseason there wasn't much doubt about the outcome. Show writer/creator Aaron Sorkin instead chose to focus on Bartlet vs. his opponent Governor Ritchie of Florida, who makes a point of attacking Bartlet's intellectualism and accusing him basically of being an elitist egghead communist; more fundamentally of saying that since Bartlet is an intellectual he is out of touch with the general public and cannot be relied upon to lead them well or look out for their interests (he once says on Bartlet's China policy, "we need a real American leader"). Sorkin did much to explore the intricacies of American anti-intellectualism in these episodes (some of his best), culminating in the third season finale "Posse Comitatus," at a Shakespeare play where the President confronts his rival face to face. Governor Ritchie, who missed much of the play in order to spend it at a Yankees game, tells Bartlet that "it's, you know, how ordinary Americans amuse themselves."
Fourth season opens with "20 Hours in America," an amusing staff-focused episode centered around a few senior staff members who are stranded in Indiana after the motorcade departs without them. Bartlet spends much of the first half of the season clashing with political consultant Bruno Gianelli over issues of politics vs. principle, furthering his idealistic streak. After winning reelection midseason (in the episode appropriately titled "Election"), Bartlet learns to do without his speechwriter Sam Seaborn, who through a tangled chain of events has ended up running as a candidate for the House of Representatives in Orange County, California. Sam's temporary replacement is amusingly-harassed Will Bailey, whom Bartlet dislikes at first but grows to respect. The President, not content with winning by a powerful margin, decides to use his Inaugural Address to announce a radical new direction in American foreign policy, based on principle rather than interest (again, the theme of idealism in politics). VP John Hoynes becomes entangled in a sex scandal and is forced to resign; in fifth season, against his personal wishes Bartlet appoints Bob Russell as a compromise between him and the new Republican majority, headed by a belligerent new Speaker of the House. The finale of fourth season was the epic "25," in which Zoey Bartlet is kidnapped and held hostage. Believing himself incapable of making rational decisions when his daughter's life is on the line, Bartlet resigns his Presidential powers pro tempore; since VP Hoynes has resigned, and at this point Russell had not yet been appointed, Bartlet's powers pass to the Republican Speaker of the House, setting up a twisted dynamic for episodes to come.
More things happen in fifth season, but most notable of all is the departure of Sorkin in favor of "ER" writer/producer John Wells; since the show was shaped and guided almost in its entirety by Sorkin, episodes past this point are practically a different show. Someone else can node Bartlet's progress through these.
Politically, Bartlet is no extremist; but he is quite liberal by modern American standards. He is very much an idealist and holds quite firmly to principle in the face of politics. He is also a devout Catholic raised in a family of Episcopalians, another nail in the already-troubled relationship between him and his father, who says in "Two Cathedrals" that "You're Catholic because your mother was and you're at this school because I'm the Headmaster." Regardless of his religion, Bartlet does his level best to keep it out of his politics: he supports abortion rights even though he opposes it morally because he believes that it is not the government's place to decide the issue. For a fantastic illustration of the clash between Bartlet's religion and political ideals, check out the first season episode "Take This Sabbath Day," about the death penalty.
Jed Bartlet does have his flaws: he is a bit elitist, has a temper, and can be an insensitive clod when wrapped up in his own problems. He is a deeply principled person and has a hard time facing up to the compromises that politics and military operations sometimes require. He often overreacts and has trouble keeping his emotions out of decisions, especially military ones; he smokes when nervous even though he quit years ago (and is married to a doctor, no less). He can also be a bit of a smartass at times and resents being "coached" or "handled." Even so, he remains the dream liberal president, a more leftist Bill Clinton with more idealism and without the shady personal habits and crusading desire for universal acceptance.
Bartlet's Vice President was John Hoynes, later Bob Russell; his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was Admiral Fitzwallace, now unknown,; his personal aide is Charles Young; his Chief of Staff is Leo McGarry; and his Press Secretary is C.J. Cregg. Other members of his staff include Josh Lyman, Deputy Chief of Staff, and his assistant Donnatella Moss; Toby Ziegler, Communications Director and his Deputy, Sam Seaborn, now Will Bailey. He has nominated two Justices to the Supreme Court (one in first season, one in fifth).
Many West Wing fans are voting Bartlet '04: are you?