After watching the entire riveting first season of the first hit Netflix original series, House of Cards, I was left shaken, disturbed, and morbidly intrigued. For those not yet enticed, the show is a play on Americans’ perceptions of politics mixed with some realistic scenarios from the underbelly. I sat down with Government Professor Jack Pitney to discuss the show, and he answered a few questions that could be of interest to the pining political junkie.
Do you think its happened in the past that politicians have been as ruthless as Frank Underwood?
Without inserting any plot spoilers, I don’t think that many politicians would do to Peter Russo what Frank Underwood did, that’s a bridge too far, but pretty darn ruthless, yeah.
Do you think there’s a reason they picked a South Carolinan Democrat to play this cold politician?
Well, the accent is pretty cool. Practically everybody on the show is a Democrat, there aren’t many Republicans and I think it was a very shrewd move because they take party out of it. The West Wing annoyed a lot of people because there seemed to sometimes be partisan sermonizing. There’s no partisan sermonizing here.
So you think it’s a pretty fair evaluation of both sides?
Oh yeah, and they avoid the criticism that they have some partisan agenda.
So who is the real-life counterpart for Frank Underwood?
Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Absolutely. There’s a still of Frank Underwood in his office and he’s reading the biography of Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro… Naturally the plot is based on the British series, but the character is [based on] LBJ, and also on Richard III. Kevin Spacey played Richard III before starting the series, hence the device of the asides, which is taken from Richard III. But a lot of the character is based on LBJ. [Screenwriter Beau Willimon said the character is "two scoops of LBJ with a dash of Richard III and a pinch of Hannibal Lecter."]
What aspects in particular?
The deviousness. The willingness to do what it takes. Having the goods on everybody. He kept files on people.
Are there specific events you think they draw from or are they playing it up?
Well, the plot devices came directly from the British series, but the overall character of someone being totally ruthless is original. And there is a little bit of Lady Bird in Claire. The LBJ tapes revealed that Lady Bird was much shrewder politically than people realized at the time — they just thought she was this nice lady involved in highway beautification. And she was very much involved in his political career and perhaps, like Claire, was aware of his extracurriculars… It’s particularly likely because Kevin Spacey is about my age and LBJ made a big impression on baby boomers.
Going back to his “extracurriculars,” what do you think of Underwood’s relationship with the media?
The exact activities, that he engaged in with Zoe — my sense is that it’s not typical, though I can’t say that it’s never happened. But playing the media — next time I teach Politics of Journalism, I’m using that. Developing relationships, albeit not physical, with reporters is very common.
So it’s common to have a pairing like that?
Oh, yeah. [Robert] Novak, himself, is a good example. He openly admitted to doing that — having an open relationship with certain sources, having favorite outlets, using Twitter now. People know who feeds whom — during the Reagan administration, everyone knew who was giving stuff to Novak. People know who is giving stuff to Bob Woodward.
The paper that Zoe works for, Slugline, is very modern, with reporters uploading from their phones. Do you think that’s representative of the media now?
The way we see Twitter used in House of Cards is I think very realistic. It’s BuzzFeed. [Read more on this subject here.]
How about the relationship between Sancorp and the Underwoods?
There I think they play a bit too much to public perceptions. The relationships between politicians and interest groups is tangled but I think they inverted it. I think politicians have the upper hand there. In real life, Frank would definitely have the upper hand in that relationship. But campaign finance is more complicated than that. The people involved in Sancorp could only give under very strict limits. There are SuperPACs, but the people who found SuperPACs are individual people, not corporations. It’s just a lot more complicated than they make it seem.
One of my favorite quotes is “I’ve done my time. I backed the right man.” Do you think most politicians really are just trying to back the right man?
I love that quotation and there’s a lot of truth to it. It’s not just true for politicians, but it’s especially true for young, up-and-coming staffers. Backing the right man is the difference between being George Stephanopoulos and being a junior house staffer with a cool story about a campaign.
Right. Is there anything else that struck you about the show?
Yeah, Kevin Spacey gets all the attention because he’s so flamboyant, but Robin Wright — the brilliance of her performance is in its subtlety. Because she can come across as really nice and open and, oh there’s a stiletto in her other hand.
Do you think that spouses could have that much power just from being married to a politicians?
Oh yeah, we’re now in the era of the political alliance. Back in Lady Bird’s day, she was a significant advisor but didn’t have an independent network of contacts.
Is there a good modern example of an Underwood couple?
Recently, John Dingell was the chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee, and his wife was a leading lobbyist. There’s the phenomenon of the power couple.
Are there any final judgments you want to make?
No, but that picture is key. A Robert Caro multi-volume biography of LBJ is like a handbook.