This Townhouse of Cards

Neither This Town nor House of Cards offers a realistic view of the Washington most of us know.

National Journal
Aug. 16, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

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