News giving fiction a run for its money.
The parallels are manifold: a prominent southern "New Democrat" ascends to the Oval Office in large part through the advice and machinations of his brilliant Yankee wife. Their marriage is a constant dance of political realism, compromise, and genuine affection. There's an implicit understanding that she will remain in the back seat throughout his term, though he may occasionally grant her a more relevant role than is usually afforded first ladies. If she can only be patient enough, her day will come.
It was clear from the first episode of Netflix's House of Cards that, in adapting the BBC political melodrama for American audiences, the creators had elected to base the principal characters, Frank and Claire Underwood, on Bill and Hillary Clinton. While the corrupt, felonious, and ruthlessly pragmatic Underwoods frequently have me (and many a professional pundit) choking on the outlandishness of their schemes, they're utterly compatible with the conspiracy theories that Clinton-haters have been spinning since 1992. Is it plagiarism to turn a Rush Limbaugh rant into a TV series? Or just good stewardship of scandalous resources?
Whether you love it or loathe it, House of Cards resonates with a time when things got done in Washington through back-room deals. As questionable as the principles behind those deals may have been, they moved the country forward, turning the economy around, expanding civil rights, and laying the groundwork for post-Soviet globalism--all of which came crashing down within the first two years of George W. Bush taking office. Barack Obama's hard work has, again, recovered much of that lost ground, but only against the strenuous resistance of Congress. Many of suggested that he could have accomplished far more had he been willing, in his first days in office, to compromise some of his principles, to play the Clinton/Underwood game.
I'm skeptical of such prognostications. As nutty as the details of House of Cards may be--can anyone imagine that a vice president (or, in the BBC version, a minister of the government) could get away not just with conspiring to murder, but with committing the crime himself?--the title of the series is the truest description of every government that has ever existed, whether in a democracy or a totalitarian regime. Whenever new politicians come to the capital, eager to build something new, they must begin by dismantling whatever came before them. When I studied political science in college, the prime example of the policy pendulum was British parliamentary democracy: Labour governments nationalize utilities, Conservative governments privatize them. For a policy change to outlast the government that created it, it must be so indispensable, so tied to the interests of voters, that those who would overturn it put their very careers at risk by doing so. Everything else--the grand initiatives, the diplomatic breakthroughs, the very personality of the nation--is swept away whenever a new legislature and president come to town, to be replaced by another tenuous structure. The cycle is as certain as the rise and fall of our rose garden, the blooms of May promising a lovely June, a potentially gorgeous July, perhaps a display that will last into November, but must eventually be cut back, ultimately to the bare stalks of February.
I was not a Clinton fan in the 1990s. The President's gift for empathy, his brilliance at "feeling the pain" of whomever he was talking to, seemed much more skillful than genuine to my introvert sensibilities. In 1996, Ed Paup, newly appointed Bishop of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference, came to my small rural church to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Watching him work the room, the only word I could use to describe him was "Clintonesque." It didn't surprise me at all when Clinton's presidency was nearly undone by a sex scandal--or when, fifteen years later, Ed Paup resigned for similar reasons. Those who are just too smooth, too good at making everyone in the room feel personally touched, sometimes have a hard time knowing where to draw the line on that personal touching.
I'm not a Clinton fan now, either, but for different reasons. Hillary Clinton is not her husband. It's not easy for her to convince strangers that she cares about them, and at times she can seem brittle. You might think that, given my suspicion of the too-smooth political operator, I would find myself drawn to Hillary's difficulty with seeming likable, a problem I shared with her during all my years in the ministry. If that's all there was to it, I'd have no problem joining Team Hillary.
Unfortunately, I've seen another side to this Clinton that bothers me far more. Last June, Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. During the interview, Clinton insisted that her opinion on marriage equality had not changed over the years. Terry Gross questioned her on this, and pressed the issue, suggesting that Clinton had been allowing the polls to dictate her public opinions. This led Clinton to engage in some slippery legalistic parsing of the English language. I was listening to this interview while on a run in Ghana, and when I got to that part, I stopped in my tracks and shouted "Bullshit!" This was a Clintonesque "definition of 'is'" moment, and it infuriated me.
I realize this is simple political pragmatism: nobody wants to vote for a politician who admits to being guided by polls rather than principles. And yet, holding opinions that are unpopular is death to a campaign. It's understandable that, at a time when state after state was passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, even a senator from New York had to choose her words carefully if she wanted to serve a second term, or move on to a national office. Admitting now that that's what she was doing, calculating her statements to offend the least number of voters, would reveal her for what she is: a politician like all the rest. But that's the game we play, the house of cards every person elected to political office is constantly building.
The most skilled of politicians do it with such aplomb that we never suspect the compassionate, gregarious Bill Clinton exterior masks a cold, calculating Frank Underwood heart; but then, in real life we're not privy to the fourth-wall-breaking asides that interrupt every episode of House of Cards. It would be wonderful if, in the midst of that Fresh Air interview, we could've been a fly on the inside of Hillary Clinton's wall of political composure, knowing what she was really thinking about that question.
But we're not. And that's why I can never be a wholehearted supporter of any politician or, even more than that, why, as much as I love analyzing the world of politics (during the first season of The West Wing, I couldn't help thinking that Sam Seaborn had my dream job), I wouldn't last long in that world. It's why the ministry was ultimately the wrong place for me: to appease a demanding congregation, a pastor has to make far too many compromises to his or her own identity and principles.
Now don't get me wrong. I fully intend to vote for Hillary Clinton. I know she'll move this nation in the direction of progress, and that whatever Republican finally winds up competing with her will do the opposite. But that would be just as true of Frank Underwood, if he was running.
And if she loses? Let's just hope Obama used enough glue constructing his house of cards that it can't just be blown away by whatever gasbag takes his place.