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America's Least-Favorite City Has Become Television's Favorite Subject

One strain brought on by “The West Wing,” the White House drama that ran from 1999 to 2006 on NBC, was a feeling of being trapped with the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, and forced to watch him play with his action figures, or possibly himself. When President Josiah Bartlet delivered lines like “get your fat asses out of my White House” to leaders of the Christian right, you could almost detect a giant thumb and forefinger holding Bartlet by the waist to bounce him up and down and move him from room to room—or was that a sigh of ecstasy?

Still, “The West Wing” was daring in its time, even subversive. Traditionally, at least as far back as 1880, when Henry Adams anonymously released his satirical novel Democracy, fictional accounts of Washington have focused on pettiness, betrayal, hypocrisy, and depravity. But “The West Wing” offered up honorable public servants with oddly uniform patter trying to steer the nation to a better place. It made public policy fashionable, and it didn’t hate Washington.

Today, we can see that Sorkin’s sunny vision was a fluke, born of a time when our elites looked competent and wise. Maestro seemed like a great title for a book about Alan Greenspan; Robert Rubin was “the greatest secretary of the treasury since Alexander Hamilton” (said Bill Clinton); and Dick Cheney had “journalists scrambling to find gentle synonyms for the word ‘dull’ ” (said the Los Angeles Times). The establishment was our friend.

It has been a rough stretch since. There have been some rifts. Let’s not review. But Washington, for its part, has done great, becoming the richest metropolitan region in the nation. Thanks to an expansion of government and federal contracting, there’s a new D.C. in town. Regrettably, signs are that he’s a pimp. He lies to us, takes our money, monitors our contacts, hands out presents, puts us in debt, says he’ll take care of us, and beats people up. (While he doesn’t make us have sex with his friends, just give him time.)

And Hollywood loves him for it. The decade that was good for Washington has been even better for the Washington show. It started up gradually, with entrants like “The West Wing” and “24,” then snowballed. Today, no fewer than eight big-budget shows are set in our nation’s capital. Five are present-day dramas: “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Scandal,” “The Blacklist,” and “Hostages.” Two are present-day comedies: “Veep” and “Alpha House.” And one is a drama set in the early ’80s, “The Americans.” At its current rate, Washington will be as ubiquitous on television as the saloon and the cattle range were in the 1950s, which saw a peak of 26 prime-time Westerns.

Courtesy of ABC via Getty Images
Kerry Washington.

For a child of Washington, this is mighty strange. When I was growing up, first on Capitol Hill and then in Cleveland Park, I would have had trouble imagining my hometown as a magnet for glossy dramas. This was the late ’70s to the early ’90s, the Marion Barry years, when 14th Street was a red-light corridor and Mt. Vernon Square was rife with crack houses. Things were so bad that, in 1990, Juan Williams took to the pages of The Washington Post to plead that Washington was “a great place to live,” despite the “high housing prices, high taxes, poor services, troubled schools and political scandals.” Powerful Washingtonians ate at Duke Zeibert’s. Duke Zeibert’s sucked. Glamour was to be found in neither Washington’s high life nor its low life.

Today, 14th Street shines. One searches in vain for a decent crack house in Mt. Vernon Square. And we try to justify our appetite for all the new shows about the place. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of “Veep,” speculated to Politico that it has “something to do with the fact that Obama’s in office.” Democratic strategist Donna Brazile told me the dysfunction of Washington “makes fodder for a Hollywood script. People like the sleaze.” Anti-heroes have been hot for years, and Washington is full of promising real-life inspirations.

But the most important reason, I think, is that we’re groping for answers. Over the past decade or so, Washington’s governing elites told us a lot of hogwash. We repeatedly fell prey to their false assurances on a variety of subjects (wars, bubbles, etc.), and the experience has left us a little warped. Psychologists call it “adaptive paranoia,” something that those who are in a predatory environment develop as a survival asset.1

The trouble is that few if any of us can live with distrust yet tell no alternative story. We don’t read the papers and say, “That’s probably untrue, but I cannot know the truth.” We instead read them and say, “That’s false; and here’s what must have really happened: Marvin Bush brought down Tower 2.” When you’re paranoid, you aren’t just inclined to disbelieve truths; you’re also inclined to believe nonsense.

So when we look at our wealthy capital city and see a group of people getting everything wrong, sometimes lying, and generally turning into that mean pimp, we want someone to show us why this is happening. We want a story that will impose some explanatory order on Washington’s horribleness. Each new show about Washington—one after the other after the other after the other—does that. Each says, “Let me be your guide and explainer. Here’s how Washington really works. Here’s the real story behind that awful place.”

So which ones get Washington right?

Of the current crop of Washington shows, “Homeland” and “House of Cards” make the strongest claims to giving us an insider’s view. David Nevins, Showtime’s entertainment president, told The Washington Post that his interest with “Homeland” was “in trying to get the culture of the place, trying to get it right,” so that people can see “how it really works.”

And to the extent Washington works in “Homeland,” it’s thanks to partnerships between fanatics and hacks. The fanatics are bipolar CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) and captivity-addled Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who has been repatriated to the United States after spending eight years as a prisoner of Al Qaeda. Mathison fears that Brody has been transformed into an agent of the enemy; Brody, who blows away a deer at a backyard garden party and prays to Allah in his garage several times a day, does little to dispel this impression.

Courtesy of Nadav Kander/Showtime
Claire Danes.

The hacks are nearly everyone else, including Vice President William Walden (Jamey Sheridan) and ambitious CIA Deputy Director David Estes (David Harewood). Walden seems to think he’ll be the next president, and Estes seems to think that Walden will tap him to be the next director of the CIA. Actually, scratch “seems.” “Homeland” isn’t big on subtext. “God knows, we’ve needed some good news, and you certainly delivered,” Walden tells Estes in the pilot episode. “I have to think the short list for the directorship just got a lot shorter.”

In “Homeland,” fanatics do the heavy lifting, and hacks take the credit. CIA Middle East Division Chief Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin), the sole character who seems able to balance sanity with principles, has seen Estes, once an underling, leapfrog past him on the CIA ladder. To be heavily driven for the sake of a cause is the province of the crazy (Mathison) or the brainwashed (Brody).

“House of Cards,” a Netflix serial based on an English series of the same name, sees “Homeland”’s cynicism and raises it. Kevin Spacey plays Francis Underwood, a Democratic House majority whip stinging from betrayal after being passed over for an appointment as secretary of state. Along with his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), who runs a large Washington nonprofit called the Clean Water Initiative, Francis maps out a path to power and revenge. Assisting him is hungry young newspaper reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), who benefits from being the conduit of Underwood’s strategic leaks.

In the Washington of “House of Cards,” lust for money and power explains everything. It’s all a game, and all’s fair. Anyone who believes otherwise is an antelope in cheetah country. Claire Underwood’s Clean Water Initiative is about as interested in cleanliness and water as Quantum of Solace was interested in quanta or solace. Gubernatorial candidates are just puppets propped up by D.C. kingmakers. Already in scene one, Francis is breaking a dog’s neck with his bare hands, not that we haven’t all been there.

If your interests run to journalism rather than elective office, you don’t have to twist the heads off of animals. But the people older than you will be foul-tempered and rude, so you must destroy their careers. Also, pick your sources wisely, since you’ll be sleeping with them.

As with “Homeland,” “House of Cards” intends to convey a realistic Washington. “We definitely push the limits of probability,” said Beau Willimon, the show’s creator, to CNN, “but everything that happens on the show is more or less plausible.”

Let’s leave aside whether either “Homeland” or “House of Cards” captures the procedural details of the place. If real-life CIA operatives can detain a sitting congressman in Washington, take him to a black site, and stab him through the hand during an interrogation, we’re in rough shape.2 Even Tom DeLay, while tough in his day, stopped short of asphyxiating uncooperative colleagues. Rather, do either of these shows get at the cultural truth of Washington?

“Homeland” happens to be a favorite show of no less than Barack Obama, but it’s hard to believe “Homeland” nails the vibe inside the CIA when it so regularly flubs the mundanities of life in Washington. In one scene, a congressman’s daughter gets in trouble during a prayer meeting at a Sidwell Friends–like school for interrupting a classmate who was making a case for attacking Iran. “The Arab religion doesn’t value human life the way we do,” the boy declares.

Now, I’m an alumnus of one of those Washington schools, St. Albans—a place so stuffy it makes Sidwell Friends look like a hippie commune—and I can say that, even two decades ago, when elite Washington was whiter and more conservative, such an insular point of view would never have been expressed by anyone on campus, let alone in a group assembly.

For one thing, even our biggest blowhards wouldn’t have come out with something like that in front of our Arab and Muslim fellow students. (Diplomats from the Middle East do send their children to school somewhere.) For another, respect for cultural diversity was implanted into my generation from the time we started learning to pour liquids from one container to another. Even back in the early ’90s, the curriculum of Sidwell Friends included a course called “Peoples and Cultures of the Islamic World,” one that was apparently convincing enough to inspire the teacher herself to convert. (Née Diane Bidelman, she is now Karima Diane Alavi.) I suspect this emphasis on esteem for other faiths is one reason why our foreign policy gets so odd—why, even as we launch missiles at half the world, so many of our leaders are at pains to tell those on the receiving end it’s nothing personal and they’re welcome to come here for school.

In another “Homeland” subplot, Finn, son of the vice president, escapes culpability for a crime thanks to hush money. “It’s how the world works,” he tells a friend. Finn is a melancholy fatalist, a child of corruption.

There may be some Finns out there, but in my experience, the kids of politicians tended to be much less cynical than the rest of us. And while the real teenagers of elite Washington are unusually savvy about the political process, they also like to think their parents are up to something good. St. Albans got lots of visits from so-and-so’s dad, the pol or operative. You always got the sense these people were proud of their work—and that their kids were proud of their parents. You can’t understand D.C.’s sins unless you understand that D.C., rightly or wrongly, thinks well of itself. That’s often a lot of the trouble.

“House of Cards” has a related set of foibles. It doesn’t bother me that a political mastermind like Frank Underwood has never existed. The real question is whether this exceptional fish swims in a recognizable sea. I don’t think he does.

Wire image
Kevin Spacey.

Like “Homeland,” “House of Cards” gives us a Washington with a dearth of idealism. But it also gives us a place without warmth. In a city that’s still, even amid bitter divides, heavily oiled by personal affection, that’s a serious absence. Washington is icy to outcasts, but if you’re in the club, it’s hugs and prolonged handshakes. And you crave those things. It’s a place where—as Mark Leibovich recounts in This Town—even a chilly son-of-a-bitch like Harry Reid has to call reelected Democratic senators on election night and tell each of those needy adults, “I love you,” or “Love you, man.”

Washington’s warmth also spawns much of its sleaze, because corruption is rarely a cold-blooded sin. When there’s a cozy deal or a conflict of interest, it’s usually between people who like each other. Congressional staffers who become lobbyists are effective in no small part because there’s lingering affection. And like most of us, public officials are tempted to bend the rules when it comes to friends and family. In his book How Washington Really Works, Charles Peters explains, “The insidiousness of the innocent favor is that, like access, it plays on the natural and human desire to be nice.”

“House of Cards” can feel persuasive, because, as the physician and author Marcia Angell once wrote, “Blanket cynicism gives the illusion of understanding.” But, precisely because it’s shot through with cynicism, the Washington of “House of Cards”—and also “Homeland”—doesn’t have a lot of hypocrisy, that nasty vice that causes you to lie to yourself and ostracize others for your own sins. The characters are jaded, but they’re frank with themselves about it. In these shows, Washington tells a lot of lies to others. But far more common, and more dangerous, are the lies Washington tells itself.

Let’s talk about those lies for a moment. John Edwards, son of a mill worker, didn’t spend much time in Washington. But he learned fast. He ran first as a right-leaning Democrat in the ’90s, then as a populist hawk in ’04, and then as a lefty dove in ’08, eventually betraying his terminally ill wife and impregnating a campaign videographer and paying a large sum to a staffer to pretend to be the real father. He spent fortunes and hours on his hair. And he seems to have had unwavering faith in his own high purpose and goodness, clinging to delusional hopes of heading up the Department of Justice. He was a perfect Washington bad guy: shallow, opportunistic, and dishonest to his core. (I have high expectations for Marco Rubio in that regard, too, but I’ll have to be patient.)

This makes “Scandal,” now in its third season on ABC, relatively perceptive. Created by Shonda Rhimes, who gave us the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” began as an off-putting procedural about fast-talking, hot misfits who, led by an even faster-talking and hotter Washington crisis manager, Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), steered scandal-troubled clients out of trouble. But it soon evolved into a full-scale exploration of a post-apocalyptic society in which the U.S. Constitution has been shredded, rule of law abandoned, and the Oval Office occupied by a madman and serial philanderer around whom dead bodies pile up—in short, the Clinton years, as seen through the eyes of Richard Mellon Scaife.

The chief emotional complication of “Scandal”’s hero is that she’s embroiled in an on-and-off affair with the recently elected president of the United States, Fitzgerald Grant III (Tony Goldwyn), whom she helped to elect, thanks to insights like this: “It looks like you don’t screw your wife. Which would be fine, except that family values matter to Republicans. It’s why they vote for who they vote for.” (Conservatives, you can now stop complaining that Hollywood doesn’t get you.)

President Grant is a Republican, but all his policy positions appear to be those of a Democrat—and a very effective Democrat, at that. Here he is lobbying his hostile vice president to abandon her opposition to an immigration-reform bill:

“Let’s just get right to it. You intend to be president one day,” Grant tells her. “But of the fourteen vice presidents in our history who have gone on to assume the presidency, do you know how many have done so without the endorsement of the president they served? We are going to do great things together, you and I. Great things. And we’re going to start by passing the DREAM Act.”

Grant’s vice president is thus persuaded.

“She’s in,” President Grant tells his chief of staff. “Deal closed.”

“Scandal” may qualify as the most ridiculous show on television, so it’s surprising that it should often come closer to the real Washington than “Homeland” or “House of Cards.” But its strength is that it portrays powerful people telling themselves that the dubious things they’re doing, like killing off enemies, are defensible in the name of some higher purpose.

It’s not just the self-deception that “Scandal” gets right. The show also understands that a lot of powerful people are stupid, incompetent, or sloshed. “Scandal” ’s officials, including the president, are prepared to make disastrous policy choices based on trivial stuff in their personal lives. Improbable? As Henry Kissinger recalled, Richard Nixon would sometimes issue “bloodcurdling orders” like “bomb the airport of Damascus” in order to impress his friends, only to be relieved to see them quietly disregarded.

“Scandal” is then smart enough to notice that these stupid, incompetent, or sloshed Washingtonians are often married to one another, or related by birth, in hair-raising conflicts of interest. When we learn that D.C. fixer Olivia Pope’s dad is the head of a sinister spy program or that Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene is married to the chief White House correspondent for The D.C. Times, we’re just seeing Washington. Members of Congress are married to lobbyists. Journalists are married to political staffers—or to Federal Reserve chairmen. Change the rules and half the town would be unemployed.

Everyone on “Scandal” also feels perpetually besieged, especially in the White House, which abuses its power every time it gets the chance. And that, too, winds up capturing a truth—about Washington and everywhere else. Abuses of power don’t happen because people feel powerful; they happen because people feel weak. There’s an eternal gap between what even the most effective despot wants the world to do and what the world is willing to do. As Chairman Mao tellingly complained, “I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.”

For all its strengths, “Scandal” is the most paranoid of the Washington shows. That helps explain why its characters, while entertaining, don’t feel human. One of the best shows about Washington turns out to be less of a participant in paranoia than an observer of it.

“The Americans” is set in 1981, right after the election of Ronald Reagan, when cold war tensions were ratcheting up. At the center of the show is a couple who precisely aren’t Americans: Mischa (Matthew Rhys) and Nadezhda (Keri Russell), two Soviet spies known to the rest of the world as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who have trained themselves to seem American through and through. By day, they are travel agents. By night, they are poisoners, abductors, and seducers. Trying to foil KGB spies in the United States is FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), who, embarrassingly, fails to figure out what’s off about the Jennings family in the house across the street.

Courtesy of Criag Blankenhorn/FX
Keri Russell.

“The Americans” ought to be campy. But once you suspend enough disbelief to accept that the heroes sneak like the Scarlet Pimpernel, drive like Richard Petty, and fight like Bruce Lee, they feel real. Yes, you say, they would feel that inner-conflict, could react that way, might take that action. Also, the Washington that surrounds them feels mostly mundane and true. The FBI characters and scenes are especially good, capturing a bunker-like camaraderie. Many of the problems faced by the heroes come from overreaction on the part of both Washington and Moscow—misunderstood signals, mix-ups, and, simply, paranoia. As in real Washington, people make decisions in the dark.

Not that themes of betrayal and conflicting loyalty require drama. The best portrayal of Washington currently on the air—and one of the best ever—comes from “Veep,” the much-praised HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a sidelined vice president of the United States. Comedy tends to focus on absurdity, minutiae, and indignities—and, since absurdity, minutiae, and indignities make up 90 percent of life, the resulting picture is often the clearest of all. No film captured the music business better than This Is Spinal Tap, and no TV show captured the business of television better than “The Larry Sanders Show.” Joe Biden and his staff are said to love “Veep,” and the phrase “That’s a ‘Veep’ moment” has become a refrain among staffers.

Humiliation is baked into the show’s premise: It’s about a vice president, Selina Meyer (Louis-Dreyfus), who is struggling to gain some influence and status in Washington. In season one, the president never calls, and members of Congress are dismissive. Even the lowly White House liaison, Jonah Ryan (Timothy C. Simons), lords it over everyone. He is the Washingtonian with terrible social skills whose great joy in life is the borrowed power that comes from attaching oneself like a barnacle to yet another barnacle on a giant ship. He’s perfect. In season two, things get a little less grim for the vice president, but, naturally, the humiliations continue.

Although the specifics of “Veep” are surreal, the indignities magnified tenfold, and the cynicism boundless, the show still homes in unerringly on Washington’s vices: the status-jockeying, the conflation of high purpose with self-interest, and the unceasing pressure to pretend to be something you aren’t.

This is the Washington of Newt Gingrich miffed to have been placed in the back of Air Force One after the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, or of speechwriter Michael Gerson meeting a reporter at Starbucks and pretending to be composing a State of the Union speech even as his colleagues were back at the White House drafting the real thing, or of newly elected Barack Obama cracking a joke about the Special Olympics.

“Veep” is also, in its odd way, the most sympathetic of the shows toward those it depicts. It understands that Washington’s politicians join a fraternity of those who know the difference between symbols and real policy but who must report back to constituents who see only the symbols. If you talk to voters as if you’re explaining things, you’re condescending, but if you talk to them as if they’re on your wavelength, you’re aloof. It tends to make you either a cynic or a hypocrite—and, in either case, a bit of a bullshit artist.

“Veep” ’s characters have become “types” in Washington, and, alas, its most disagreeable ones appear to be the most recognizable. “‘The Jonah’ is the most spot-on depiction of Washington ever constructed,” former Obama deputy press secretary Bill Burton told The New York Times. “I know 100 guys like that.” But Democratic operative Jay Carson told the Times that another character, the nimble deputy communications director Dan Egan (Reid Scott), who tosses aside people when they cease to be helpful to him, is really the most common. “I know 55 Dans,” said Carson. “Dan is definitely the most realistic.” 100 beats 55, but either way, it’s a lot of douche.

Courtesy of Lacey Terrell/HBO
Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

When you’re winding down from an overdose of D.C.-on-TV research, seeing Hollywood strike with three more Washington-based shows is a tough blow, akin to a relapse of venereal warts. But I dutifully made my way through some of “The Blacklist” on NBC, “Hostages” on CBS, and “Alpha House” on Amazon. The last of these, a half-hour comedy from Garry Trudeau about four Republican senators who are housemates, was the biggest disappointment—a clunky attempt to appear clued-up that just feels forced.

But at this point, Washington shows appear to be starting their inevitable descent into imitations of imitations, just as NBC’s “Friends,” a sitcom about twentysomething friends, spawned a host of other short-lived knockoffs, all of them sitcoms about twentysomething friends. Even the same actors are showing up. No cap seems to exist on shows whose heroes work in cavernous rooms with floor-to-ceiling viewing screens, while out in the field a lead character stands in a sharply cut suit, ordering around scores of black-clad commandos. This feels less like adaptive paranoia than simple police-state porn. “So this is a black site,” says FBI agent Elizabeth Keene in “The Blacklist.” A colleague answers, “We prefer to call it the post office.” Yeah, yeah.

After all that cynical and resigned television, I needed some idealism and declaration of principle. So: back to “Scandal.” “You’ve had an exemplary career,” says President Grant to a member of the Supreme Court. “Honorable. Distinguished. I’ll do it justice in my eulogy. Your legacy will remain untarnished. And so will mine.”

Of course, Grant delivers those kind words in the context of removing her oxygen mask and killing her in her hospital bed in order to prevent her from revealing damaging information. So you could say his reasoning is a little self-serving. But, hey, that’s Washington.

T.A. Frank, editor of Zócalo Public Square in Los Angeles, is a regular contributor to The New Republic.

  1. I first learned of this term from an interview with psychiatrist Dr. Jerrold Post, director of the Political Psychology Program at The George Washington University and author of Political Paranoia: The Psycho-politics of Hatred.

  2. To be fair, one Homeland scenario, death by remote-controlled pacemaker, would not seem far-fetched to Dick Cheney, who apparently had the wireless feature of his pacemaker disabled in order to thwart terrorist attack. And we know he’s not paranoid.