It was too good to be true. The American version of House of Cards, as in the case of its British predecessor, was so unique in capturing the real life atmosphere and attitudes of Washington politics that it soon developed a cult following in this very jaded city.
Much of Washington laughs at Hollywood’s naive attempts to capture its elusive character, or lack thereof, but soon after the arrival of House of Cards a holy hush descended on the city with whispers of “have you been watching?” One could see glimpses of Atwater, Axelrod, the Clinton’s, the Bushes, Panetta, Sununu, Ben Bradlee, Mary Matalin, Jim Carville, Katherine Graham and on and on the list goes. But alas, the third season appeared and the very hubris that comes to all men of power in Washington, so ably captured by this theatrical drama, came to the producers themselves. The third season retained its compelling drama but it knack for accuracy – the very thing that made it a masterpiece of art meets reality – collapsed before our eyes.
The one scene that symbolizes this disheartening fall better than any others, has the White House Chief of Staff driving one of the president’s political allies to the airport. Huh? The White House Chief of Staff is a chauffeur? Boy did they get that wrong. In fact, so relaxed is Remy Denton that he usually stands around the Oval Office waiting for something to do.
In the first three seasons I would often pause the show to tell my children real life stories. “Yes, that sort of thing actually happened. This famous public figure was bisexual. President Bush, Senior typed many of his own notes. Lee Atwater would only smoke on Thursdays to prove that he had power over the habit. This reporter slept with that Senator and actually flaunted it. So and so runs a non profit and takes money from companies who depend on her husband’s decisions as Chairman of the Oversight Committee.” But in this third season I was more often than not, pausing the show to tell them why it would never happen that way.
Let’s start with the cabinet meetings and work our way back to the Chief of Staff. These cabinet officers who meet with president Frank Underwood, lined up like little choir boys and girls, lacking personality or opinion, are in fact, prima donnas, Lords and Ladies of enormous ego and power. They rule departments with hundreds of thousands of employees.
The Secretary of Interior, for example, traditionally arrives at work in her chauffeur driven limousine which parks in a private underground garage. The Secrtary takes a private elevator to the floor of her office and walks down a long corridor to get there. The walk is purposeful, designed to humble the visitor. Looking down from the wall on this stunning corridor are magnificent oil portraits of her predecessors. She knows very well that her own face will be haunting her successors for generations to come. The building she presides over is only the headquarters, one of thousands, yes that’s right, thousands, in her vast domain.
I remember working late at the White House one night and as I was passing by the basement West Wing a breathless staffer came running up to one of the Secret Service Stations just inside the door. Two limos were outside, their engines running.
“What time does the Secretary need to be back in the morning?” the harried staffer asked.
“The guard looked at his colleague nearby and said in an irritated and puzzled voice, “The Secretary of what?”
I giggled to myself as I passed by.
In “The Secretary’s” domain, whether it was State, or Defense, or any one of many others, the boss was simply known as “The Secretary.” As in, “The Secretary wants this on his desk tomorrow morning.” But at the White House, simply throwing out the title “Secretary” shakes down no thunder.
Above all of those Lords and Ladies of the Cabinet is the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. He is not shown as their boss in the flow chart but believe me he is in position. There is no oil portrait of him. But there should be.
Now, I have known several Chiefs of Staff. I have never seen one stand around the West Wing with nothing to do. He is surrounded by clamoring aides and administrative assistants. And I have never known of one to drive a donor to the airport. Not when he was in power. It is not that he is so prideful as much as he doesn’t have the time.
Let us hope that the House of Cards can comeback in its Fourth Season. Having teased us with greatness, like so many newly elected presidents, we now want it badly. If we can’t have it in real life, lets have it in art.