Phoebe Bridgers Wrote “Moon Song” About Jed Bartlet and Leo McGarry from The West Wing

I have cried frequently to the music of Phoebe Bridgers. Whether silently weeping to “Demi Moore,” or scream-sobbing along to “Motion Sickness,” Phoebe Bridgers makes me deliriously emotional. Needless to say, I loved Bridgers’ transcendent new album, Punisher, which seamlessly balances lyrical authenticity with extraordinary guitar work. I’ve listened to it all the way through on both hikes and road trips, finding new favorites each time, from the peppy “Kyoto” to the plaintive “Moon Song,” a ballad Bridgers describes as being about “the wanting-to-be-stepped-on feeling” of unrequited love. “Moon Song” has become my sad-girl anthem of the month, a position previously held by Mitski’s “Francis Forever,” and more recently, Weyes Blood’s “Andromeda.” 

But “Moon Song” is far more than a sad-girl anthem. It is a sad-man anthem, too. A sad-President anthem. A sad-Chief-of-Staff anthem. Yes, as I listened further, one thing became clear: Phoebe Bridgers’ “Moon Song” is actually about Leo McGarry’s relationship to Jed Bartlet on The West Wing.

To contextualize this statement, I must disclose that I was raised on The West Wing, and have thus experienced the disappointment that comes with being a modern-day West Wing fan over and over again through rewatches. The program’s casual sexism is enough to turn any discerning viewer  away, and that’s without mentioning the show’s sparse P.O.C. and LGBTQ+ representation. On Joshua Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast, “The West Wing Weekly,” William Duffy revealed that, when asked why there are no gay characters on The West Wing, series creator Aaron Sorkin merely said, “How do you know there aren’t?” 

Now, I do not smoke. I have cough-variant asthma, so it’s unlikely that I will ever smoke, no matter how many pictures of cigarettes I’ve added to my Dark Academia Pinterest board. However, Sorkin’s remark, his total sidestep of this issue, made me want to drive 10 miles to the nearest grocery store and blow through the first pack of Marlboros available in the customer service section. His comment may represent the biggest homophobic cop-out in modern television history, second only to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s refusal to categorize Susie Myerson as a lesbian on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, declaring instead that she simply “did not fit the times.” 

Nonetheless, if I were to say that I did not thoroughly enjoy The West Wing despite its numerous faults, I would be lying. Though Sorkin never purposefully depicted gay characters or relationships within the senior staff of The West Wing, he accidentally produced an infinitely tender portrait of a repressed gay politician in his fifties in the character of Leo McGarry. All the elements are there: his excessive annoyance with the flamboyant Lord John Marbury, his omnipresent Catholic guilt, and his affectionate friendship with President Bartlet, the most damning nail in this coffin. Once you open your third eye and understand that The West Wing’s Leo McGarry is clearly gay, the obvious next step is to realize that Phoebe Bridgers specifically wrote “Moon Song” about his unrequited feelings for Jed Bartlet. 

You asked to walk me home / But I had to carry you

Asking to walk someone home is supposed to be a selfless gesture, one intended to maintain the safety of a separate party. Bridgers makes it clear in “Moon Song,” however, that her subject is in no state to truly help anyone. In season one of The West Wing, we learn that White House staffer Leo McGarry is a recovering addict who ran the United States Department of Labor while abusing alcohol and Valium. Jed Bartlet stood by him throughout, however, and eventually asks him to serve as the White House Chief of Staff during his presidency, effectively rehabilitating Leo’s political career. 

Yet Bartlet is in no position to rehabilitate anyone’s career. Three years into his presidency, Bartlet’s entire senior staff gets subpoenaed after he neglects to mention his relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis to the American public. Oops. 

Though Bartlet means to help Leo by asking him to become his chief of staff, he makes Leo’s job much harder by lying about his MS to become president. In the end, Leo is the one who has to carry him.

And you pushed me in / and now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you

In “He Shall From Time To Time,” it is explained through Sorkin-brand exposition that a cabinet secretary must skip the State of The Union each year in case of an emergency on Capitol Hill that would leave the United States entirely without government. The Secretary of Agriculture is chosen to step out, and Bartlet has a conversation with him about the presidency:

Bartlet: You got a best friend?
Secretary of Agriculture: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Is he smarter than you?
SoA: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: Would you trust him with your life?
SoA: Yes, sir.
Bartlet: That’s your Chief of Staff.

Leo overhears this and smiles to himself. Through his job, Bartlet has become an indelible figure within American history, but he has also permanently tied Leo to himself through his position as Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. Leo cannot fathom the impact of Bartlet’s presidency on America, but the depth of his personal relationship to the president still continues to astonish him. 

You couldn’t have / You couldn’t have / Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody / Who loves you more

While the canon of The West Wing contains relatively little tongue-sticking, Bartlet’s full-throttle commitment to his friend represents a metaphoric tongue shoved down Leo’s throat in terms of its intensity and heedlessness. The whole situation has a certain “crush-on-your-straight-best-friend” je ne sais quoi: no matter how much faith Bartlet puts in Leo as his top advisor, the man simply can’t give his friend what he really wants. 

So I will wait for the next time you want me 

Bartlet spends far more time with Leo than he does with his wife. Their offices are connected, they almost always fly together on Air Force One, and Leo is privy to far more government information than Bartlet’s family is. Tell me, what is more intimate than advising the man you’ve been in love with for decades while surrounded by military personnel in the White House Situation Room? 

Nonetheless, after Leo clocks out, Bartlet goes back to the residence and into the arms of his beautiful, intelligent, and loving wife, Abbey. Leo’s entire livelihood hinges on serving at the pleasure of the president, but after hours, Bartlet has an unfractured family of his own for whom to provide.

Like a dog with a bird at your door

Leo ends his marriage and moves into a hotel to work for President Bartlet. He offers him countless “birds” by getting him elected president, advising him in terms of solo-chess strategy, and reliving the worst years of his life through the first season’s expository news articles. That’s to say nothing of his congressional testimony during Season Three. Sometimes, Bartlet picks these birds up– keeping and framing a napkin Leo wrote on years ago, throwing out flirty banter at a candlelit dinner, and, basically, running for President because Leo thought it was a good idea. But at the end of the day, Bartlet seems pretty oblivious to any non-heterosexuality in his White House, especially from his best friend, an Irish Catholic Vietnam War veteran.

We hate “Tears in Heaven” / But it’s sad that his baby died

This line speaks to the pair’s shared experiences in politics. While neither party has time to wallow in the sentimental, each man recognizes the grim consequences derived from several Bartlet administration dilemmas. I also really can’t imagine any West Wing character except maybe Sam seriously enjoying Eric Clapton.

And we fought about John Lennon / Until I cried

So I’ve mostly repressed the post-Sorkin West Wing seasons, but remember in Season Six how Leo couldn’t support Bartlet’s decision to send thousands of U.S. troops to the West Bank and Gaza? And their conversation became so heated that Leo agreed to resign as Chief-of-Staff? And then Leo has a literal heart attack outside of Camp David because he just lost everything that he’s ever sincerely cared about? Well, I remember it vividly, and this line thoroughly exudes season six Leo McGarry energy. 

And then went to bed upset

The exchange itself is as follows:

Leo McGarry: I can’t support this decision…
President Bartlet: We can’t keep having this argument.
Leo McGarry: No, sir, we can’t. If my counsel is no longer of use to you, perhaps–
President Bartlet: So, if I disagree with your advice, you have to threaten me?
Leo McGarry: This is your own League of Nations and it will ruin you like it ruined Wilson.
President Bartlet: Okay. I’ll need your successor in place before you leave.

In essence, neither party is happy with this decision. It’s been suggested that Leo was even posturing, hoping that his threat of resignation would push Bartlet in a different direction. Bartlet calls his bluff, however, and Leo suffers a massive heart attack while the president drowns himself in guilt. Truly, truly damaging content from American television director John Wells. 

But now I am dreaming / And you’re singing at my birthday

In “Bartlet for America,” Leo says that, “A podium is a holy place for [Bartlet] . . He makes it his own, like it’s an extension of his body. . . I love him so much.” Well, the Achilles-Patroclus vibes are out tonight, ladies! It’s evident that Leo deeply admires Bartlet’s ability to speak, and to have his friend perform for him alone rather than for the entire American people would be almost overwhelming. “Happy birthday Mr. President,” indeed.

And I’ve never seen you smiling so big

Leo really just wants to make Bartlet happy, as demonstrated by, well, every single West Wing episode ever screened.

It’s nautical themed 

The specificity of this lyric is so endearing. Of course Phoebe Bridgers’ dreamscape birthday party would be nautical themed. There are actually several West Wing episodes that deal with the nautical! The pilot episode references Cuban refugees emigrating to Florida through a storm on rafts. Bartlet comforts a ship’s radio operator as a hurricane overtakes him in “The State Dinner.” “Shibboleth” opens on the Coast Guard in a harbor. And, of course, the whole of “Two Cathedrals” takes place during a tropical storm. Naturally, Leo McGarry remains by Bartlet’s side through each maritime conundrum.

And there’s something I’m supposed to say / But can’t for the life of me / Remember what it is

Bridgers presents a fascinating back-and-forth between the speaker and the speechless that applies seamlessly to Bartlet and Leo. Bartlet speaks brilliantly to audiences across the world while Leo watches in admiration, calculating the administration’s next move while still dumbfounded by his friend’s abilities. In “Two Cathedrals,” for example, as Bartlet publicly announces that he will be seeking re-election, Leo looks on from the wings and proudly tells the rest of the staff to watch his friend speak. I can’t even imagine the utterly damning impact this episode would have had on my psyche had I seen it when it aired. The longing! The sheer fondness!

And if I could give you the moon / I would give you the moon

From season 1, episode 4, “Five Votes Down”: 

Leo: This is the most important thing I’ll ever do, Jenny, I have to do it well.
Jenny: Not more important than your marriage.
Leo: It is more important than my marriage right now.

Leo gets a divorce for Jed Bartlet. He sacrifices his home and his family to work as the chief of staff for a man who, as he will learn, lied to him about having multiple sclerosis. A man who makes countless mistakes in office. A man who essentially fires him after a debate about the Middle East. But — and this is crucial — a man who Leo loves. Jed Bartlet is more important to Leo than his own wife. Even after learning that Bartlet has a potentially disabling disease, Leo does everything he can to ensure that his friend gets a second term as president. Of course he would give him the moon.

You are sick and you’re married / And you might be dying

So these lyrics actually came into my home like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and shook me by the shoulders until I realized that “Moon Song” is indeed about The West Wing. Leo pines after Bartlet for years on end, at one point unable to stop writing his best friend’s name on spare napkins, like a high schooler doodling his crush’s name on a stray piece of homework. Unfortunately, Jed seems unflinchingly dedicated to Abbey throughout the series, thus making him wholly inaccessible to Leo. Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis constitutes the sickness Bridgers writes about and serves as especially poignant when Leo calls Bartlet “Jed” for the first time since his election while they discuss his MS together in season one. 

Leo: Jed, all the things you could have kept from me. . . 
Bartlet: You haven’t called me Jed since I was elected.
Leo: Why didn’t you tell me?
Bartlet: “Cause I wanted to be the president.
Leo: It wouldn’t have stopped me from getting you here. And I could have been a friend.
Bartlet: You’ve been a friend.

And while complications from MS can result in death, Bartlet’s presidency is also killing him, as demonstrated when he gets shot by white supremacists.

But you’re holding me like water in your hands

This line coheres to the previous lyrics in that when Bartlet gets shot and rushed to the hospital, he sees Leo, who looks so utterly concerned, and kisses him on the cheek, telling him, “It’s okay.” Even though Bartlet is the one who’s going into surgery, he recognizes that Leo needs this moment. He needs to know that everything is going to be all right even more than Bartlet himself does. Mr. Sorkin… a word, please? 

When you saw the dead little bird / You started crying

I really don’t get the feeling that Bartlet wanted Leo to dedicate himself so fully to his job. When he learns of Leo’s divorce, Bartlet actually gets angry with Leo for spending his time at work instead of with his wife, repeatedly shouting at Leo to “fix it,” which, I mean, projection much? Leo’s extreme commitment to Bartlet is an indisputably double-edged sword. He absolutely shapes Bartlet into a better president through his honest counsel, but the intensity of their friendship makes it so that their arguments, though quickly resolved, are totally monopolizing.

But you know the killer doesn’t understand

The real kicker is that Leo obviously doesn’t see anything wrong with putting Bartlet before everything else in his life. His admission that working as Bartlet’s chief of staff is more important than his marriage would undermine all platitudes about love over money if it were not so evident that Leo’s job and love-life are inextricably tangled through Jed Bartlet. 

So, there you have it, folks: indisputable proof that Phoebe Bridgers wrote “Moon Song” about the fictional President of the United States and his fictional Chief of Staff. I will leave you with the fact that Phoebe Bridgers recently referred to her song “Savior Complex” as the sequel to “Moon Song,” which certainly feels apt; The West Wing is pretty much entirely about individuals with exceptionally prominent savior complexes.

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