The Collapse of the House of Cards: How the video series imploded, can it come back?

July 7, 2015

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.


Presidents in the Movies

January 31, 2015

Each president is different.  In their own way, each has impacted the office.  What may be an accurate theatrical representation of one president will differ greatly from another and both may be right or wrong.  In recent years, the office has become forced into a more consistent template, this because of the demands of security and technology.

Almost any movie or tv portrayal of a president is flawed.  but some are more accurate than others.  West Wing had some accurate moments.  Although the constant rushing about – shuffling paper – and the extra large, movie set offices were far-fetched and distracting.  The open, team oriented president is also unlikely.  Presidents quickly become corrupted and become more private.  Because of the nature of the office, all of them become isolated.  This leads to moments like Katrina for George W. Bush and Paris for Obama.  These are moments when presidents lose touch with reality.
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Some movies are literally scripted by history.  Oliver Stone’s W used many historical events and real life conversations, with some very notable exceptions. (They had Karl Rove advising GWB back in the 80’s.  I never saw Karl or even heard of him back them and was with GWB almost every day.)  But even with accurate conversations the movie still managed to portray GWB as “the dummy” characterized by Saturday Night Live, which was inaccurate.  I guess you would call that art mimicking art. Ha.
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The movie Lincoln also stuck to real events recorded by history and like a good newspaper editor, they didn’t use a conversation unless confirmed by more than one source.  The exception were the private conversations between Abe and Mary, which only Mary gives us in her recollections.
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It was a great movie that was ruined by one stark, totally unnecessary, inaccurate scene at the very beginning.  Lincoln is sitting with soldiers, black and white and they are reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address.  I promise you that nothing like that ever happened.  It would be like someone reciting back to President Obama or Reagan a speech they had just given a few months before.  At that time in history, no one memorized the Gettysburg Address.  Lincoln, himself, could not have quoted his own Gettysburg Address, let alone soldiers in his army.
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Kevin Costner played in Roger Donaldson’s Thirteen Days.  He was a special assistant to the president. The portrayal  of this character was too confident, too relaxed, to glib in the president’s presence.  He was the hero, not JFK.  In fact, a presidential assistant is in constant danger of the machinations of other staffers.  If he was anything other than servile and deferential to the president he would be gone fast.
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 Movie producers almost always underestimate the power of the president’s celebrity.  No one but the president can be the center of attention.  He dominates the room.  Every room.  And almost every conversation.
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Depictions of the sycophants around the president are almost always poorly done.  They are subtle and accomplished beyond anything one sees in the office or the corporate world.
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The most accurate theatrical moments, to me, have been in the House of Cards because they have captured the art of politics at work.  I have literally put the show on pause and told my children stories from real life that mimic exactly what is going on. The only thing that is different from real life, is that all of the players, not just Frank and Claire Underwood, can likewise be manipulative. (And, of course, presidents don’t personally commit murder.)  Picture the White House with 100 Frank and Claire Underwoods on staff and you get a little idea of what life is like there.
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And in the House of Cards, the media is often seen as the victim when they are just as likely the predator as the politician.
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Presidents of the nation, like presidents of corporations, never have to say what they want or spell it out.  Although, comically, sometimes it happens like the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was wiretapped speculating on the sale of appointing a new Senator.  The staff is competing to please them and anticipating what they want.  The president can grunt or groan or role his eyes or sometimes just remain silent and wait and his staff will figure out what he wants.  And sometimes they will do it without his knowledge to protect him.  And they will all use lofty language, the good of the people, the nation comes first, etc.
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Power corrupts.
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Finally.  The best, recent, presidential movie, the most accurate from history, IMHO, is probably Hyde Park on the Hudson, starring Bill Murray.  It was a small but complicated piece of neglected history that I had been researching and it was done exceptionally well.  Historians, spoon fed from the FDR propaganda machine have usually portrayed him as sexually impotent. We now know better.
PostScript:  This blog was written before the third season of House of Cards in which the accuracy of life in the White House, especially the role of the Chief of Staff, was very much diminished.  It’s too bad.  That was a good part of its charm.  The theatrical appeal of the series is still somewhat compelling but the producers clearly decided to save some money by cutting much needed input from real live participants who have “been there and done that.”  The author of the original British series, who took great pains to get it right, was probably horrified.
Doug Wead presidential historian

Doug Wead

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