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.
In the strange world of politics, there are the clowns (Bush, Palin, French President Hollande), the phenomenal, hard-to-classify figures (Bill Clinton), the tough, practical ones (Angela Merkel), the absolute villains (Assad, Cheney), the also-rans (Chris Christie), the complicated may-runs (Hillary Clinton), the much-admired (Mandela), the no-longer-admired (Aung San Suu Kyi), etc. And then there are the Shakespearean, monumental characters. I realize that I’m applying here one of the favorite cliché of people who love clichés–mixing apples and oranges–by mentioning these public figures in the same breath although some are important or infamous for the reality of their exercise or pursuit of power, past or present, and others simply there as background brouhaha. The point I want to make is that a look at today’s media demonstrates that Ariel Sharon who just died after eight years in a coma is in a category of his own, remarkable in bad as well as in good, on a scale different from that of ordinary politicians–and with much vaster consequences. I used to detest the man, particularly after the Israeli forces under his command looked the other way while Lebanese militia massacred hundreds and perhaps thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in 1982. The decades that had preceded and those that followed don’t make him any more endearing. He was an unbending, self-serving and self-promoting bastard, bulldozing his way through obstacles, facing off with a conniving, corrupt Yasser Arafat on the Palestinian side, both men finding their bread and butter in making sure that no agreement would ever bring peace to that benighted region. Read more…
No matter how you look at it, democracy is still the best system—nay, the only system—to govern our messy human race. But with this system spinning out of control, here comes a conundrum: can we have democracy without elections and if so, what would replace them?
Item: There are signs that the Iranian President shortly to begin his mandate may not be all he was touted to be—or, if not quite an dangerous cretin like Ahmadinejad, not allowed much leeway by the power elite in the Islamic Republic. The U.S. response to Iran’s perceived or real threat regarding the nuclear issue so far has been to impose ever stricter sanctions. For me, these fall under the “don’t know” category, meaning I’m neither for nor against, unable to figure out their utility. Are they working? If the goal is to weaken and even destroy the economy, then yes, they are. Will it bring the Iranian regime to its knees and make it renounce its evil ways? I don’t think so. We’re giving too much credit to the Supreme Leader and his clique when we attribute to them a Machiavellian mind capable of reasoning and strategizing rather than see how incapable they are of realizing that their repressive and irresponsible regime will eventually fail, with or without sanctions. And while analysts analyze and Middle East or Iran experts pore over tea leaves, Congress does what? Votes 400 to 20 to increase sanctions, in a move typical of a system—ours in democratic countries—gone amok. Read more…
What does it say about us and the people we elect to office that we don’t believe they could say anything out of conviction but only to court public opinion? That’s the sad state of affairs that Nathan McCall, a professor of African American studies at Emory University, describes in this past Sunday’s Outlook.
My post is going to write itself as all I have to do is quote his article. First, McCall reminds us of Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark about Sister Souljah’s racist statement (“If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?”). Clinton likened the hip hop singer’s baffling statement, in its extremism, to the views of white supremacist David Duke, not a stretch by any means. But for McCall, “When Clinton ran for president, he was desperate to woo white conservatives… By showing toughness against African Americans, he hoped to impress Reagan Democrats and other white conservatives.” Call me naïve but I would hope that Clinton would have a few ideas of his own and recognize blatant racism when he saw it. Never mind that the over-analysis (similar to the one I’m indulging in today) that followed immediately forced him to eat his words. Read more…