What House of Cards Gets Wrong About Real-Life Washington

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Nathaniel Bell for Netflix.

House of Cards is addictive. And why not?

Kevin Spacey’s menacing mien and Shakespearian asides are irresistible as he portrays a vice president who is as mendacious as Joe Biden is verbose. Robin Wright, playing his wife armored in Narciso Rodriguez, is a Valkyrie Hillary Clinton.  

Everything about the Netflix series is fun from the time-lapse opening credits of  Washington turning to dusk to its myriad cameos. It’s being downloaded so often you wonder whether so many Americans are watching it that first quarter GDP will suffer.

Still, it’s absurd. And not because it’s too dark, a bad trip West Wing where everything noble has turned wicked. And it’s not off base because it gets so many details wrong (Can a first lady pull a congressional bill?) or eye-rolling turns of phrase (“We stand at the altar of democracy.”)  

And it’s not the way it apes real life, like the Rube Goldberg plot involving Indian casinos, a Warren Buffett-esque mogul with Midwestern roots and Hank Paulson’s looks and ornithological loves, anarchist hackers, a hooker on the run, a Long Island bridge to nowhere, Chinese fugitives--not to mention a member of Congress who endures painful tattooing to deal with their guilt. Surely, they could just attend a Ways and Means hearing.

The problem with the show is that by being so bleak and Machiavellian it underestimates the chaos that happens is motivated by something far more dangerous than selfish blind ambition -- idealism.

After all, in a world where everyone is motivated by self interest and has no beliefs, we would never have had the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis that nearly had us living in caves. That was born from the honestly held belief that debt is the chief threat to the United States and that raising the debt ceiling without cutting the budget commensurately was horrible for America.

That may be wrong, even dangerous. but it’s an honest ideological -- even idealistic -- belief.  In the ruthlessly pragmatic world of House of Cards there’d never be a debt ceiling crisis. Only believers would engage in that kind of self-immolating behavior. Washington has genial believers like Grover Norquist and fewer ruthless pragmatists than you’d imagine.

There are a tiny number of pols on House of Cards who actually believe in something--a sanctimonious liberal Congressman who hilariously won’t drink decaf because it has too much caf and a tea partier who gets easily outflanked by Kevin Spacey. Everyone else switches positions with ease.

A few more characters let love blind them--a newspaper editor, a high-powered lobbyist--but everyone else is entirely protean or gullible like the hapless president. The reporters, for their part, are mostly dupes and the few that aren’t are on the run. Even Matt Bai, the real life former New York Times reporter who plays himself in several episodes, gets utterly manipulated by Spacey’s people.

Spacey’s character is odious, but we root for him not only because he’s smart and fun but because he’s so effective. “Ruthless pragmatism,” he says several times throughout the series.

In an early episode he shows off a famed photo of Lyndon Johnson hectoring Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. We’d like someone like LBJ to break the logjam, even if they have to step on a few corpses. But gridlock won’t be fixed by bloodlust. It only comes when people have less idealism and and more pragmatism.

For good or ill, political figures are less vicious than the ones in House of Cards. And much more ideological. Which explains the mess we’re in.

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