By Jeannie Williams
The West Wing's President Bartlet is behaving just like a real person with multiple sclerosis, says Montel Williams. He should know, having announced his MS diagnosis in August 1999.
Martin Sheen's Josiah Bartlet revealed his illness last week to his communications director (Richard Schiff), who became only the 17th person to know about it. Secrecy ''is what a lot of us do. We don't admit it because we're afraid people will misjudge us,'' says Williams. The talk-show host says he knows of celebrities and business people who ''refuse to come forward'' and won't, until symptoms are evident.
''I applaud the (West Wing) producers and writers for taking this step,'' he adds. ''I don't recall another dramatic series where the lead character gets a chronic illness and we deal with it, as millions of people in America are dealing with it. For the first time, we have a hero who has a big dent in his armor, and it's OK. People still will tune in and like and revere him.''
The issue for Williams is that ''illness doesn't equal weakness.'' He talked to me before going out to snowboard in Breckenridge, Colo. ''I had 74 days of snowboarding this season,'' he said proudly. He has relapsing-remitting MS, like the West Wing president, and has no doubt a person with that type could serve in the Oval Office.
''Absolutely!'' Williams says that even if a person suffers an episode with effects such as slurred speech, ''it doesn't mean you're not capable of making the biggest decisions on this planet.'' He mentions Franklin Roosevelt, who was in a wheelchair after polio.
Williams, 44, says he didn't tell his parents of his diagnosis until two days before his 1999 press conference, which came a year after he was diagnosed. Now, ''I'm doing better than holding my own,'' with traditional, holistic and hormonal treatments. He works out daily and has a photo spread due in Muscle and Fitness mag. Exercise is now recommended for many with MS, he says. He still has pain in his lower legs, but snowboarding has helped increase control over his feet; he believes it is helping rewire his nerve pathways.
He'd love to guest on The West Wing for the MS story line; he's doing other guesting, including on JAG and Touched by an Angel.
This week, an Internet site called Spotlight Health launched the Montel Williams Multiple Sclerosis Awareness Program (www.spotlighthealth.com). Williams isn't paid for his involvement; the program will offer information on detection and treatment, online chats and support groups.