Easy Chair — From the May 2013 issue

Power Rangers

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What, then, is the Washingtonian, this smug and satisfied man? Behold him as he ambles toward you on the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, phone clamped to his ear, talking loudly so that all might know his significance. Note well his blue suit, blue tie, the lapel pin announcing his patriotism or his lofty elected position or his allegiance to one trade association or another. What manner of man is he?

The makers of our TV shows think they know. In 1999, they gave us The West Wing, a beloved program about a culture-warring president and his gang of jaded aides who, though they harbor no illusions, try to do what is right for the country. The show was a fantasy of what liberals hoped the powerful were like — as Bill Clinton reportedly said in 2000, it was “renewing people’s faith in public service.”

Today TV knows something else about Washington. The trust of the American people in their leaders is now at a record low. In truth, it has been in the dumps for decades; it collapsed during the Vietnam War, and, despite fluctuations over the years, has never really recovered. Disgust hit a new high after the debt-ceiling debacle of 2011, when fully 86 percent of Americans told pollsters they felt “angry” or “frustrated” about the federal government — the worst result on record. And this is no doubt what accounts for the caustic new crop of Beltway soap operas, seemingly designed to dynamite faith in Washington rather than renew it.

[1] Netflix, which produced one of the shows discussed below, actually chose its director and star by analyzing user data. “Through our algorithms,” declared one Netflix executive, “we can determine who might be interested in Kevin Spacey or political drama.”

Political cynicism as a form of entertainment is nothing new, of course. And viewers have long been able to choose from an extensive selection. There’s Sixties-style suspicion of the Pentagon, for example, or Seventies-style suspicion of busing and the EPA. But what distinguishes the current offerings is that they invite you to scoff for no reason at all. This new cynicism is largely unrelated to American politics — indeed, much of it is imported wholesale from other countries. It seems a thing not of populist rage but of focus groups and algorithms, and its distrust of government is almost completely abstract.[1]

From Scandal, the hit ABC series about a high-powered D.C. fixer, one expects better. After all, it is based on the real-life experiences of Judy Smith, who served George Bush the Elder as deputy press secretary and helped sell the country on Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Unfortunately, Season 1 of Scandal turns out to deal pretty much exclusively with sex scandals — plus more sex scandals, followed by sex-related fallout. The main thread concerns a lowly White House staffer who has had an affair with the president, or at least claims she has. Should this dalliance become known to the public, we are assured, it would compel the president’s immediate resignation. No need for lies told to grand juries or any such complexities: You screws, you lose.

The show’s central character, who is herself having an intermittent affair with the president, is one Olivia Pope, principal of a crisis-management consultancy. Her associates include ace lawyers, a former CIA agent who can hack into anything, and various other vaguely brilliant people. Pope, played by Kerry Washington, is supposed to be a phenomenal image wrangler and a healer of damaged souls.

Pope’s main superpower is her “gut.” This faculty, she informs us in the first episode, “tells me everything I need to know.” I had hoped that invocations of the intestinal infallibility of D.C. figures might cease forever after the gut-directed disasters of the George W. Bush Administration. Perhaps Olivia Pope is allowed to revive the cliché because her other power steers her in the opposite direction, toward extreme rationalism. Which is to say, she can talk really rapidly, which makes whatever she is saying seem highly persuasive.

[2] Along with coproducing Scandal, Smith runs a crisis-management firm in Washington whose clients have included Monica Lewinsky and Michael Vick. She is also the author of Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets.

Olivia Pope’s firm is supposedly modeled after Judy Smith’s, but what it truly resembles is Jack Abramoff’s, which was once regarded as the one-stop shop for all your legislative and media-manipulating needs.[2] Pope has a superbly Abramoffian moment when she first terrifies the president’s rumored love interest — threatening to out the staffer for her multiple sexual partners, her mother’s mental illness, and “that ugly bout of gonorrhea” — and then, a little later, signs her up as a client.

Alas, the similarities end there. Scandal gives us scandal after scandal while scarcely mentioning, say, lobbyists or defense contractors. We never even see Pope get paid, let alone funnel checks through a steeplechase of shell corporations and phony think tanks. No, in standard TV fashion, she must wear the white overcoat of moral and political virtue.

And so things generally work out the way they should. The closeted gay man who is wrongly accused of murder is acquitted once he acknowledges his gayness; the prostitute turns out to have a heart of gold; the wife of the monstrous South American tyrant abandons him during a state visit to Washington. As it happens, the defection of this caudillo’s wife allows Pope to lay out her political philosophy in some detail. Surprise: it’s mostly about the liberating power of celebrity culture! “She seems weak now,” says Olivia to the dictator, speaking (very rapidly) of his asylum-seeking spouse:

But she is smart. She is powerful. And smart, powerful women like Carolina, they don’t curl up and hide when they’ve been wounded. They strike back by writing memoirs and appearing on talk shows and at benefits and on red carpets, talking about women’s rights in the developing world, and how babies were ripped from her arms by a ruthless dictator.

That’s how change happens — by way of famous people strutting down a red carpet while the cameras tape and the millions gape.

This will never do. Scandal may be a hit with the public, but the true connoisseur of misgovernment snickers at Olivia Pope and her team of lovable misfits, mounting their campaigns for truth and justice from their whimsically decorated loft office. Even the celebrated sequence in which a Pope employee tortures someone — just one of those things that happen in Washington, I guess — dwells on the sad life experiences of the torturer. This is light and fluffy nihilism, less Hunter S. Thompson than Walt Disney.

Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the vice president, does without the torture but nevertheless peers a little deeper into Washington’s dark heart. The show is a study in sycophancy (as was its model, the U.K. series The Thick of It). Veep is also a comedy, and the running joke goes like this: despite all the sucking up by her power-hungry, compulsively flattering associates, the vice president has no power herself. She is incompetent. Her schemes are without fruit. Her gambits always fail. Her boss speaks to her only through a contemptuous emissary, who always takes pains to remind her of her impotence.

What brings on the laffs is watching a cast of operators scream at one another in great swirling spouts of profanity. This is not actually how people in Washington do their business, or even their bad-mouthing. Still, the curses never cease. One legislator calls assistants “gay dwarves,” while another refers to an aide as “a gold-plated fucking shit-gibbon.”

Oh, it’s a rollicking good time. The powerful heap threats and abuse on the powerless, and the powerless do the same to one another. Everyone despises everyone else, and if someone shows an emotion other than hatred, he or she must surely be faking it. The only discernible point of this acid bath in pure misanthropy — other than the obvious industrial purpose of establishing HBO as a manufacturer of no-holds-barred “realism” — is to demonstrate the farcical ignobility of government.

Leave it to House of Cards, a series developed by Netflix, to deliver the hard stuff. It gives us Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Frank Underwood, a Democrat working with a fractious Congress. In its structure, the show is so similar to Scandal that one suspects it was generated with the help of some D.C.-entertainment master template. Both programs dramatize an intricate conspiracy that persists all season while lesser scandals come and go. Both feature such stock characters as the cub reporter, the high-class prostitute, and the icy wife of a powerful man who knows about his affairs with younger women; both revolve around murders that the authorities have mistaken for suicides; and both conclude their first seasons with deep thoughts about childlessness and reproduction.

The main difference is that Frank Underwood (his initials are FU, get it?) doesn’t solve problems in the manner of Olivia Pope. He causes them, with a sort of Mephistophelian verve that makes Karl Rove look like a nickel-and-dime artist.

House of Cards begins with the election of a new president. Underwood campaigned for this man and expects to be rewarded with a high position in the administration. When the job is withheld, he embarks on a preposterously twisted course of revenge, backstabbing and betraying just about everybody he encounters. At one point, in the midst of a Byzantine plot to replace the vice president, he actually kills somebody.

The show’s eye for D.C. detail is sometimes sharp: a recurring subplot concerns one of those hypervirtuous nonprofits with which the capital is so well stocked; it seems to be philanthropic, but is in fact neck-deep in politics of the most sordid kind. And the program’s gloomy message is underscored by its setting. Almost everything here happens either at night or in some dimly lit interior. Walls are gray, or a dirty sallow color, and the same thing can be said of much of the clothing.

Less effective are the villainous asides Underwood delivers to the camera. Not only is the technique borrowed from Shakespeare, but the language he uses on these occasions is supposed to be high-end stuff, meaning that it usually sounds stilted. (“I have zero tolerance for betrayal, which they will soon indelibly learn,” he says at one point, in the manner of a summer-stock Richard III, thereby reminding us that House of Cards, too, is a direct adaptation of a British program.)

Along the way, we meet numerous petty tyrants and watch minor characters get fired or have their careers ruined. House of Cards, we begin to understand, is a show about bosses, the bossed, and the methods by which members of one group motivate and manipulate members of the other. The leadership techniques of the wicked Underwood boil down to one essential item: blackmail. The way you get people to deliver is by threatening to expose them — it’s foolproof, and it transforms the victims into your robots for life.

These shows agree that the human species is at its worst within the confines of the Beltway. They insist that America’s leaders are greedy and self-serving; that anything you hear from a person residing in Dupont Circle or Chevy Chase must be treated with the same skepticism you reserve for those desperate emails from dispossessed heirs to Angolan banking fortunes.

Misgovernment is epidemic, of course, and plenty of the episodes in these shows are based on actual events, like the Chandra Levy murder and the “D.C. Madam” prostitution scandal. Still, not one of them manages to diagnose what ails Washington, D.C., or even to touch on the really quintessential scandals of our age. None of them, for example, tries to explain how our bank regulators bungled the financial crisis or how the political class came to believe that the federal deficit is so catastrophic as to require immediate, panic-stricken austerity.

This is not for any lack of cynicism, mind you. The makers of these shows have let their imaginations run in the fields of the Devil; they give us evil big-government characters doing evil big-government things and telling evil big-government lies. They are willing to believe the worst about nearly everyone. So why do they keep missing the real deal?

The answer is that the standard Hollywood vision of corruption has nothing to do with the reality of Washington. Start with the most basic question: Why do people in Washington do the awful things they do? What motivates them? In each of the shows under consideration here (and in many recent movies on the subject as well), this question is seldom addressed head-on. But in Scandal and Veep and House of Cards, the explanation is obvious: They do it for power. Power is its own reward.

By which I mean, power defined in relentlessly individual terms. Forget the grand themes of various real-life scandals — the Abramoff affair or Iran-Contra. The skulduggery on TV is always personal. This nifty worldview allows the TV producers to do neat things like avoid partisanship and import plots from abroad, and it also ensures that they will always get reality wrong.

In House of Cards, for example, Underwood spends episode after episode working on an education bill that eventually provokes the ire of Marty Spinella, a lobbyist for the teachers’ unions. To protest the bill, Spinella initiates a nationwide strike, and Underwood is pressured by the president himself to resolve the situation.

He does so by inviting the lobbyist to a private meeting and insulting him. “The most you’ll ever make of yourself is blowing men like me,” Underwood sneers, “men with real power.” At which point Spinella punches him and Underwood threatens to tell. Thus the huge strike is ended — not because of a vote by the union rank and file or anything, but because the union lobbyist got himself into an awkward situation.[3] In this theory of how Washington works, the cart drags the horse all over town.

[3] Although a lobbyist could conceivably play some role in organizing a strike, the idea that he would single-handedly end such a walkout is ludicrous; the decision would be up to union presidents, local leaders, and individual members. Nor would a labor lobbyist’s smacking a guy like Underwood constitute blackmail material. On the contrary, it would almost certainly be a point of pride, as it was when John L. Lewis punched the conservative head of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners in 1935, and thereby began the process of forming the Congress of Industrial Organizations. 

The reason that this kind of cynicism will always fail to comprehend the misgovernment of our time is that such misgovernment arises from this kind of cynicism in the first place. Why were so many essential operations in Iraq and New Orleans outsourced to fly-by-night contractors? Because we knew better than to let government do the job. Why weren’t our regulators more clued in when the financial crisis erupted? Because we had figured out that government supervision was little more than red tape, and so we turned regulation over to market actors themselves.

I object to such programs not because I think we should show more respect for Washington, but because cynicism is precious and powerful stuff, not something to be squandered indiscriminately by any ignoramus with an algorithm. Cynicism can be the wellspring of reality and reform. But done like this, it merely feeds the cycle of federal disaster.

On the other hand, there is a city in which all these fantasias of corruption ring perfectly true, a place where bosses are amoral despots who flaunt their power and abuse their underlings, and where people really do think, in their moments of peak idealism, that celebrity culture will save the world. It’s just a shame that Hollywood can talk about its problems only by projecting them onto others.

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