We Love the City

The monologue is my preferred method of discourse.

John Spencer, 1946-2005

This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey, you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey, Joe, it’s me. Can you help me Out” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you nuts? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before – and I know the way out.”

On a very good show full of very good actors, John Spencer always managed to distinguish himself. But only if you were paying attention.

Leo McGarry was seldom the centre of attention on The West Wing. He was always there, always in the heart of the action, but it was rare the focus was on him. Even when he was the only actor on screen, Spencer seemed to deflect the spotlight; his character was frequently the eyes, ears, and hands of President Bartlet, so it wasn’t hard to see him as almost an extension. His character deflected praise to others and kept blame to himself. He didn’t have the scene-stealing flair of Martin Sheen, Bradley Whitford or Alison Janney, and he wasn’t, to be blunt, as attractive as Janel Moloney.

But no one who paid any attention to the show could deny his tremendous impact. Just watch his stories in the first season: How often can a character tell his wife that yes, his job is more important than his marriage and not look like a jerk? “This is the most important thing I’ll ever do,” he says, and we believe him.

While there are many great Leo moments – not the least of which is the above quote from Noel – it was rare that he got an episode to really shine. The best of those, and one of the very best of the entire series, has to be Bartlet for America. We see, in gut-wrenching details, some of the sacrifices Leo made to get Bartlet into the White House. Instead of an emotion-drenched sapfest, Spencer presents us with a man who in many sense gave up his life for the White House and yet doesn’t regret a thing.

“This is the most importan thing I’ll ever do” echoes in almost every scene John Spencer appeared in. He was driven and selfless, alternating at times between hardass and a supportive father-figure – even to the President himself.

John Spencer wasn’t the star of The West Wing, but he may have been its soul. I know very little of his personal life, beyond the obvious parallels to his character, but his professional achievement has been matched by few. He will be misse by those who knew him, but never forgotten by those who watched his work.