This Townhouse of Cards

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

National Journal
Jill Lawrence
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Jill Lawrence
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.

What We're Following See More »
Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
5 hours ago
White House Weighs in Against Non-Compete Contracts
6 hours ago

"The Obama administration on Tuesday called on U.S. states to ban agreements prohibiting many workers from moving to their employers’ rivals, saying it would lead to a more competitive labor market and faster wage growth. The administration said so-called non-compete agreements interfere with worker mobility and states should consider barring companies from requiring low-wage workers and other employees who are not privy to trade secrets or other special circumstances to sign them."

House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
7 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

No Lobbying Clinton’s Transition Team
10 hours ago

Hillary Clinton's transition team has in place strict rules to limit the influence that lobbyists could have "in crafting the nominee’s policy agenda." The move makes it unlikely, at least for now, that Clinton would overturn Obama's executive order limiting the role that lobbyists play in government

Federal Government Employees Giving Money to Clinton
10 hours ago

Federal employees from 14 agencies have given nearly $2 million in campaign donations in the presidential race thus far, and 95 percent of the donations, totaling $1.9 million, have been to the Clinton campaign. Employees at the State Department, which Clinton lead for four years, has given 99 percent of its donations to the Democratic nominee.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.