Frank Underwood and a Brief History of Ruthless Pragmatism

His character may be fictional but his philosophy isn’t — just ask Barack Obama or any master of political gamesmanship.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Feb. 19, 2014, 6:38 a.m.

The greatest com­pli­ment Frank Un­der­wood be­stows upon any­one in sea­son two of House of Cards is when he calls his polit­ic­al pro­tege, Rep. Jac­queline Sharp, a “ruth­less prag­mat­ist.”

Frank (Kev­in Spacey), has done a lot to de­serve the title him­self (and here I should is­sue a spoil­er alert for any­one who hasn’t fin­ished the second sea­son). He sleeps with Slugline journ­al­ist Zoe Barnes when it’s polit­ic­ally ex­pedi­ent, and kills her when it isn’t. He builds up Rep. Peter Russo when it’s in his in­terest and gets rid of him when that’s what suits him. Even his mar­riage to his wife, Claire Un­der­wood, is prob­ably cal­cu­lated: She came from a wealthy fam­ily, he was just gear­ing up for his first con­gres­sion­al cam­paign, and he needed the money.

Claire, played by Robin Wright, doesn’t shy away from ma­nip­u­la­tion either, as when she tells a preg­nant em­ploy­ee who’s threat­en­ing to sue her that she’s will­ing to let her baby with­er and die in­side her if that’s what’s re­quired. “I love her. I have to love her,” Wright said re­cently of her char­ac­ter Claire. “She’s so evil, but I don’t see her as evil. She’s do­ing her due di­li­gence, and that’s the way things work. That’s how you get jobs done, and if there’s a hindrance or a road­b­lock, you’ve got to re­move the road­b­lock.”

The show’s cocre­at­or and writer Beau Wil­li­mon says his char­ac­ters are in­spired by the mas­ters of polit­ic­al games­man­ship: Lyn­don John­son, Thomas Jef­fer­son, and Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, people who were “will­ing to break the rules in or­der to prop­erly lead.”

That in­stinct goes back to Amer­ica’s found­ing. George Wash­ing­ton’s fam­ily coat of arms bears the Lat­in motto ex­it­us acta pro­bat (“the ends jus­ti­fy the means”). LBJ was fam­ous for his broker­ing and ca­jol­ing: “He could get up every day and learn what their fears, their de­sires, their wishes, their wants were and he could then ma­nip­u­late, dom­in­ate, per­suade and ca­jole them,” John­son bio­graph­er Dor­is Kearns Good­win wrote of his ap­proach. And Lin­coln, as we were re­cently re­minded by Hol­ly­wood’s Steven Spiel­berg, made all kinds of cor­rupt bar­gains to en­sure the pas­sage of the 13th Amend­ment.

The “ruth­less prag­mat­ist” title has also fre­quently been ap­plied to Pres­id­ent Obama. And even Obama him­self de­scribed his eco­nom­ic policy in that way: “The truth is that what I’ve been con­stantly search­ing for is a ruth­less prag­mat­ism when it comes to eco­nom­ic policy,” Obama told The New York Times in 2009. “In­ter­est­ing choice of mod­i­fi­er,” noted Jac­ob Weis­berg at the time.

Rich Lowry of the Na­tion­al Re­view agreed with that as­sess­ment. “So far, Pres­id­ent-elect Obama has ac­ted with a ruth­less prag­mat­ism,” he wrote back in 2008. He also called him “a shape-shifter” and “an es­tab­lish­ment Demo­crat de­term­ined to do whatever works.”

Dav­id Axel­rod, fol­low­ing the 2008 elec­tion, called Obama a “prag­mat­ist and a prob­lem solv­er” and Obama him­self, upon in­tro­du­cing his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team, said “they share my prag­mat­ism about the use of power.”

He bet on that ap­proach again dur­ing his 2012 cam­paign, as Mar­in Cogan re­por­ted for GQ. “It’s not a great mes­sage, not an in­spir­ing mes­sage, but the Obama cam­paign is bet­ting on a strategy of ruth­less prag­mat­ism — go neg­at­ive, tinker around the edges of fair­ness, and hope that des­troy­ing their op­pon­ent con­vinces enough swing voters to stick with the pres­id­ent.”

The term prag­mat­ism, Alec Mac­Gil­lis ob­served in 2009, has dis­tin­guished roots. “Wil­li­am James and John Dewey pro­moted it as a philo­sophy that el­ev­ated know­ledge gained through ac­tion over the­ory and con­cepts,” he wrote, “Obama has been prag­mat­ic in this sense when it comes to, say, the fin­an­cial crisis, em­bra­cing tri­al and er­ror and res­ist­ing the more sys­tem­ic solu­tion of na­tion­al­iz­ing banks.”

Some say that style was ob­serv­able even be­fore he entered polit­ics. One New York Times Magazine re­port­er asked some of Obama’s former stu­dents how they thought he’d man­age the coun­try. ”Based on what I saw in the classroom,” Dan John­son-Wein­ber­ger, a pro­gress­ive lob­by­ist in Illinois, told the Times‘ Al­ex­an­dra Starr, “my guess is an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion could be sum­mar­ized in two words: ruth­less prag­mat­ism.”

Giv­en the con­gres­sion­al grid­lock of re­cent years, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. The ques­tion, giv­en the cur­rent le­gis­lat­ive para­lys­is, is does the ends jus­ti­fy the means? “It’s a para­dox that the people who are mak­ing the rules some­times have to break them in or­der to move us for­ward,” Wil­li­mon said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “And, you know, we want our politi­cians to be per­fect people, and yet at the same time we want them to lead our coun­try, and that means some­times play­ing out­side the box.”

Obama’s ver­sion is a far cry from Frank Un­der­wood’s style of prag­mat­ism, but the show res­on­ates be­cause it gets something right about Wash­ing­ton — and not just the doorknobs and drapes. The best char­ac­ters on the show, as in life, are mor­ally com­plex (the one time we see Claire cry is when the first lady tells her she’s a good per­son). And if Frank doesn’t fit any­body’s defin­i­tion of be­ing a good per­son it’s be­cause he prides him­self on something else: be­ing ef­fect­ive.

That’s something Obama has ad­mired prag­mat­ists like Lin­coln for and it’s likely something he ad­mires in Frank Un­der­wood. Kev­in Spacey cer­tainly thinks so.

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