If you want to feel better about your nation’s capital, don’t do what I did this summer: Read This Town by Mark Leibovich while at the same time catching up on the first season of House of Cards.
Really, can you think of a more depressing combo? It’s enough to make you want to put your house on the market—until you realize that the book paints the town as outlandishly silly, the Netflix series is radically fictional, and neither Washington resembles the place where I’ve lived for 30 years.
The easy takedown is House of Cards, based on the notion that a House whip—third in the leadership behind the speaker and the majority leader—can wield enough power to manipulate lives, policy, and history. Seriously, that’s as preposterous as serving down-home barbecued ribs at a formal affair. Yes, I know, the plot made clear that this was an emergency menu, but who in a tux or long gown is going to get near that kind of saucy mess?
Also, please get in touch if you know of a lobbyist who has punched out a lawmaker. And who has ever heard of an alcoholic, drug-addicted, prostitute-using congressman who watched from the sidelines as 12,000 jobs in his district were killed—and then ran for governor? Or, for that matter, a member of Congress with a mutually agreeable open marriage? (Newt Gingrich doesn’t count, because his second wife says she refused when he asked.)
And don’t get me started on the depiction of journalism. There are still a few teams of investigative reporters who would have the luxury of trying to puzzle out the big story, as was starting to happen in the final first-season episode of House of Cards. But two reporters from a start-up getting help on a potential blockbuster from an editor who still works for the paper they left? Never, even if the editor is sleeping with one of the reporters. Also, although maybe I’m missing something, I haven’t heard of any reporter who is sleeping with a lawmaker in exchange for stories.
And yet. Kevin Spacey, who plays the whip, Francis Underwood, reportedly interviewed House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and his Democratic predecessor, Steny Hoyer, to get tips on deal-making, strategizing, and the art of counting votes. What he and the scriptwriters learned lends House of Cards a dose of authenticity that makes it all the more disconcerting. To the viewing audience, how much of this coldly, cruelly transactional world seems like fact, and how much like fiction? It finally becomes 100 percent clear that House of Cards has jumped the shark when—SPOILER ALERT—Underwood kills a member of Congress. But before that, there’s always a bit of a question.
Spacey has copped to being “in a little better stead with getting things done” than McCarthy, given that he is an actor playing a politician in a scripted TV show. No doubt Spacey as Underwood could have rammed a transportation bill through the House and wouldn’t have had to amputate the food-stamp program to pass an agriculture bill. Maybe just amputate a few toes or fingers of defiant members. It would be fun—dark fun—to see him in action on immigration reform.
McCarthy explained the difference between him and Spacey when he told some constituents this month: “He portrays this person with all the wrong things you hear about Washington. He literally murders one member. If I could murder one member, I'd never have to worry about another vote." McCarthy would have to murder more than one member to reach that nirvana, but point taken.
As for This Town, many of us live in this town (no caps). It is a lot less glittery and unintentionally hilarious than This Town. Truth be told, the line I laughed loudest at in This Town was a tweet by Mitt Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom during the #grandiosenewt campaign spurred by Gingrich’s pronouncement during a South Carolina debate that “I think grandiose thoughts.” “Is it me, or does Newt look like Pericles without the golden breast plate?” Fehrnstrom tweeted.
By including that, Leibovich underscores—possibly by accident—the extent to which the whole This Town mentality has no geographic limits. Not everyone in America can frequent green rooms around this town, but anyone who wants to can follow Fehrnstrom on Twitter. If you follow the right Twitter accounts and subscribe to the right e-letters, you can replicate that clubby This Town feeling in your own living room.
Which is actually how most of us experience this town, even when we live here. Believe me, the vast majority of D.C. residents, even those who are part of the media-political complex, are not on the circuit that Leibovich eviscerates in his book. It may take time they don’t have, or cross lines they don’t want to cross—or maybe they simply don’t enjoy it.
Don’t get me wrong: You can’t ignore entirely where you are. Washington is the kind of place where you will run into Alice Rivlin (former Office of Management and Budget director) at the local bookstore. Neera Tanden (former White House aide, current president of the Center for American Progress) will suddenly show up on a neighborhood listserv about restaurants, crime, contractors, and the merits or (usually) demerits of new development.
My personal high point as a resident of this town was when I realized that four policy-wonk parents at my kids’ elementary school were deeply enmeshed in shaping Bill Clinton’s 1993 health care plan. In a flash of brilliance, I suggested packaging them as a panel and selling them to the highest bidder at the school auction. Maybe that offering would have languished in some other town, but in Washington, a law firm snapped them up.
Go ahead, make fun of us. But do it because maybe we take ourselves, our responsibilities, and national policy too seriously. Not because we are trying to claw our way into green rooms or exact melodramatic revenge over a slight. Smart people in this town don’t even think about the latter. You never know who will be useful or do you a favor in the future, sometimes the near future. Look at former Sen. John Kerry. Like Underwood, he desperately wanted that secretary of State job, and he didn’t get it. He didn’t hijack Congress to get even. He waited. And now he’s secretary of State.