House of Cards: entertaining but ludicrous

The Thinker by Rodin

I finally surrendered and replaced my twice a month Netflix DVD plan for the “all the content you can watch online for $7.99 a month” plan. Actually, I chose the $8.99 a month plan, which lets me see shows on two devices: handy when my iMac is more convenient than the high definition TV in our entertainment room. It’s a good deal any way you look at it. It is made more so by Netflix’s exclusive programming. There are a number of series that Netflix is producing but I started with House of Cards, since it was their first and got much critical acclaim. And I must say that I am enjoying it. I haven’t had this much fun with a show based on Washington, D.C. since The West Wing.

House of Cards, at least Season 1, which I am watching now, is a TV show for conspiracy theorists. Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) is a Democratic congressman from South Carolina who is also the House whip. In case you are not familiar with this role, this is the guy tasked to round up votes to push the party’s agenda. He’s the third guy in charge in the House of Representatives, and reports to the Majority Leader, who reports to the Speaker of the House. Underwood however is the real power broker in the House, subtly pulling strings and influencing people to advance not quite his party’s agenda, or even the president’s agenda, but his agenda on how he thinks government should work. He sees himself as the government’s master clockmaker. By oiling this spot and not oiling that spot, he sets in motion many a Rube Goldberg machine wherein things usually go his way. He is ruthless enough to bring down his own boss, the Speaker of the House, with Republican votes and those from the Congressional Black Caucus, if it suits his agenda. At least so far it doesn’t appear that he aspires to a much higher office. He realizes that by being the master clockmaker he is closer to being the center of power than he would be as majority leader or even speaker. Like Dick Cheney, he does his best work by not being seen too much.

It is frankly quite an addictive show to watch, so I feel like I am getting great value for my $8.99 a month subscription. The West Wing though was at least kind of, sort of plausible. House of Cards is not, although it is great entertainment. Hillary Clinton is reputedly a fan of the show and I’m not surprised. If in their upper 60s Hill and Bill are finding it hard to find couples time, they are probably finding it by watching this show together. Slick Willy can learn a lot of lessons from watching Rep. Frank (“Francis”) Underwood.

Some part of me desperately hopes that our government actually worked this way. That’s because it would make a whole lot more sense than the way it actually does work. It’s hardly news that right now government hardly works at all. Certainly Congress is barely functioning. There is no Frank Underwood slicing and dicing his way through Washington politics. Instead there is pretty much complete dysfunction.

House of Cards might have been more realistic if it has been set in the early 1960s instead of the 2010s. Lyndon Johnson, before be became vice president and then president, was not unlike Frank Underwood. Few have been more skilled at getting legislation through Congress than Lyndon Johnson. For much of the time he was in Congress though he was blessed with Democratic majorities, at least in the House of Representatives. It’s not so hard to wield power when your party dominates a house of Congress. Maybe Underwood could have been portrayed as the Senate’s majority whip in the early 1960s, and we could have seen how Senator Underwood’s machinations tilted the presidential election in Kennedy’s favor. It’s still implausible, but it would have a lot more plausibility than this series actually has.

You don’t have to study government too hard to see how it really works. Government these days is largely controlled, not by a Frank Underwood, but by corporations and vested interests, who buy influence. One of the curious things about Frank Underwood is how little he is affected by this stuff. Or frankly how little time he spends outside of Washington and attending fundraisers. Representatives spend more time fundraising to keep their jobs than they do actually legislating. I guess that would not make good television. Congress also spends much more time on recess than it does legislating, yet Underwood rarely travels back to his South Carolina district. You also have to ask yourself: he’s a white Democrat representing a district … in South Carolina? There are seven congressional districts in South Carolina. Six of them are held by Republicans, all male, all white. The one Democratic district was one specially carved out for African Americans and is held by James Clyburn, an African American. Blacks comprise 28% of the population of South Carolina, which is 68% white, yet get only one congressman of the 7 to represent it. South Carolina is gerrymandered to the extreme toward the Republicans.

No doubt Frank Underwood is a fascinating character. He is both ruthless and somehow humane, pragmatic and relentlessly focused, artificial but quietly revolutionary. Perhaps one of the most interesting dynamics is his relationship with his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who is also quite a contradiction: ruthless enough to fire half her staff of her non-profit while maintaining what appears to be a purely emotional marriage with Frank, who she loves, while each allow the other to play around. Frank chases Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), an up and coming reporter and that’s okay with Claire, particularly when we realize that Frank’s affair with Zoe is only tangentially about the sex. It’s much more important that he sees her as someone he can use: another chess player on his four-dimensional chessboard.

This month I retired from 32 years in the civil service. Obviously I was never a member of congress, or even someone on its staff, although I spent a year making the computers work at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. I have though worked in three departments over 32 years. I have known a lot of bureaucrats including some in pretty senior leadership positions. I also done a lot of watching the machinations of government, and it is a chaotic process, today more than ever. The sad truth is there is not, and rarely is there any politician that would even warrant a B in oiling the machinations of government. It’s not because talents like Frank Underwood are not out there, it’s because of the vast kudzu of government. There is no superman out there than can really cut through it and way too many huge egos titling at windmills for any Rube Goldberg machine spawned by a Frank Underwood to work.

If we were interested in truly understanding how government works, time would be much better spent looking at how outside groups like the NRA wields their disproportionate influence. The Koch Brothers are already the subject of a fascinating documentary. I doubt Hillary Clinton will be adding Citizen Koch in her leisure viewing. House of Cards is far more entertaining. It is just, unfortunately, completely ludicrous.

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