Did I watch Season 2 of Netflix’s “House of Cards”? You bet I did, me along with what, some thirty million others, streaming problems notwithstanding. Obviously, I’m not the only one fascinated and repulsed by politics and the second season confirms our worse misgivings.
The series, despite some over-the-top moments, is well-written and eminently watchable, though to me Kevin Spacey grates as much as VP as he did as congressman in the first season. A good actor, he is devoid of the grandeur of, say, his counterpart Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) in the 1990 English version of the show and is more believable in a “Glengarry Glen Ross” setting than in the corridors of power. Not that all the men and women who stride those corridors have grandeur, far from it, but they seem to belong more than Spacey. Even that little guy—what was his name, the elder Bush’s VP, the one given to extraordinary pronouncements such as “bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement”—blended in fine. For me, Spacey just doesn’t.
Miscasting problems aside, what surprises me is the reaction from TV critics who one and all find that, entertaining as Frank Underwood’s shenanigans and evil scheming are, they give a false image of Washington. The nation’s capital, they say, may be the most corrupt city in the country (seriously? Things are better in Albany? In Austin? In Trenton, eh, Governor Christie? In scale maybe but certainly not in stench). But in Washington, according to these critics, politicians bumble along, play it by ear, don’t have a plan, and no one would come up with any plot or multiplots as nefarious as those of FU (per the main character’s initials on a pair of cufflinks given to him as a birthday present from the security guard who will end up in a threesome with VP and his wife Cruella—I mean Claire).
I’ll admit that a vicious self-serving strategy such as Underwood’s and his conspiracy aimed at getting rid of clueless President Walker in order to take his place are a stretch. But if the particulars differ, for me there’s no question that the show hews close to reality. Politicians are human, yes. To paraphrase Shylock, if you prick them, do they not bleed? If you tickle them, do they not laugh? If you poison them, do they not die? But as the Bard also said—in Macbeth, in Richard III, in Hamlet and elsewhere, and as Machiavelli before him amply illustrated in The Prince, they don’t have the needs and aspirations of ordinary humans. Rather, blind ambition and the thirst for ever more power and territory are the incentives, the only incentives, of course cloaked in soaring rhetoric and commendable sentiments. The good of the people? Of the country? The days are long gone of politicians who were also public servants and conscious of their duty to deserve the trust put in them by voters. For all of them, from the highest office in the land down to all levels and in all parties, obfuscation, lame excuses, insincere apologies, arrangements, cronyism, back stabbing, shifting alliances and blatant lies are the rule. I’m not saying this is specific to one country, only to this particular dismal area of human endeavor (but we live in this country and are more affected by the Frank Underwoods than the Danes in Denmark or the Senegalese in Senegal.)
Frank Underwood may have had no soul to begin with but those who enter politics lose theirs anyway. It wasn’t always the case. The list is long of individuals such as Lyndon Johnson a flawed, complicated man who played the tortuous game as it’s supposed to be played but still agonized over tough decisions affecting the lives of untold numbers whom he saw as people with rights, not only voters. The flickering flames of decency and hard work to protect our democracy have been almost extinct since Ted Kennedy died or John Warner (a Republican who supported gun control laws, imagine!) retired. Elected officials such as these worked together, were friends and partied together while focused on the larger picture, not only on the next election cycle and the one after that; they didn’t spend the better part of their time and energy cajoling donors and were vested in their constituencies more than only to the extent of reaching the numbers.
There are still good people around, I’m not saying there aren’t—not above reproach, mind you, no one is or ever was above reproach—but good: Senator Mark Warner comes to mind, so does Governor O’Malley of Maryland. But their voices are drowned out–while we pay for the fiddlers–by the wackos who dance on our town squares—libertarians, creationists, Tea Party extremists, NRA members, the Rubios, the Ted Cruzes, the Koch brothers, along, alas, with a long list of my fellow Democrats who may sound more reasonable but have long accepted that clashing ideologies leave them few options.
So yes, television critics are wrong in saying that the game isn’t played as in “House of Cards.” Actually, it is played exactly like that except that there’s not the one nasty guy pulling all the strings. That task is pretty much divided across the board.
Driving while listening to an NPR interview with John Rizzo, former CIA agent, about his book “Company Man” and his years with the CIA, I couldn’t help but cringe and hit the wheel and more than once cry out, “oh, for shame!”
Much as I hate publicizing a book by anyone from the eight nightmare Bush-Cheney years, I can’t help mention how actions once considered so ugly and perverted they would never have been publicly acknowledged can now be discussed on radio shows with guests who believe themselves to be not only decent human beings but staunch patriots who kept America safe. The man I heard today—none too eloquent by the way, I’d like to think he was at least slightly embarrassed—did mount a sort of defense.
“We never water-boarded more than two or three people beside Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. That’s not much considering the prison population at Guantanamo. And the enhanced interrogation procedures had been vetted by legal departments.” Two or three only? And that makes it okay? And it was legal? According to whom? Read more…