Capitol Hill longs for drama in a crisis

Washington's deadlocked political class can only envy the ruthlessly effective machinations of Kevin Spacey in 'House of Cards'


Life, Oscar Wilde claimed, imitates art far more than art imitates life. Alas, events real and fictional last week in US politics have given the lie to that proposition. First we had a couple of real-life votes that merely underscored the near impossibility of doing any serious business on today's gridlocked Capitol Hill. And then Netflix delivered a Valentine's Day present to Washington, by releasing the second season of its political thriller House of Cards.

If the title sounds familiar to British readers, it should. The US series is based on a 1990 BBC drama of the same name featuring the peerless Ian Richardson as Tory chief whip Francis Urquhart who, denied the cabinet post he covets, schemes and murders his way to supreme power. This version stars Kevin Spacey as a Congressional whip Francis Underwood (rather than Urquhart, which is incomprehensible this side of the Atlantic).

Political Washington is obsessed with the series – not least because of the contrast between the spectacular results achieved by the villainous Underwood and the real-life stasis of the current Congress, where every good idea goes to die. Fans include Barack Obama, who tweeted "No spoilers please." A busy President, in other words, does not have the time to watch all 13 hours of the drama at a single session, and therefore doesn't want plot twists given away by some idle soul who does.

Comparisons between the British and American House of Cards are invidious, even if chauvinism compels me to favour the original. Both feature Shakespearean soliloquies by the chief character but, deep down, they reflect the very different transatlantic attitudes to politics.

The British rendering is palpably satirical, arch to the point of campness. The American House of Cards, like American politicians, takes itself more seriously even if its story is no less preposterous – more so in fact, given that the US political process is inherently less secretive than its Westminster counterpart. And, while Spacey is terrific, Richardson is simply unbeatable: pure evil and droll humour rolled into one. Underwood has his catchphrase, "Democracy is so overrated". But Americans, far more than the British, believe in democracy – or what they imagine to be democracy. That remark won't pass into the national political lexicon like Urquhart's "You may think that. I couldn't possibly comment." Prince Charles himself, I notice, used the phrase just the other day during a visit to the flood-battered West Country.

But boy, did Messrs Urquhart and Underwood get things done (with no little assistance from their Lady Macbethian spouses). Contrast that with last week's real-life political action here: votes in the Senate and House to raise the government's debt ceiling, an issue that has twice brought the country to the brink of financial default.

These votes were strange in their way, but only because of the contortions required to pass an utterly routine measure that in normal times would go through on the nod. Instead the Senate was forced to vote down an attempted filibuster. But even that was nothing compared to what happened in the House, where the Republicans have a majority.

It became apparent to John Boehner, the Speaker, that no compromise would unite his fractious Republican troops and also satisfy the conservative hardliners, for whom concessions from Obama were the price of ratifying a debt ceiling increase for another 12 months. Trapped by the refusal of the White House to make any concessions, his awareness that another brush with default would be a PR disaster for his party, and by the divisions in his own ranks, Boehner threw in the towel.

The House passed the extension by 221 votes to 201. Just 28 Republicans voted in favour. To secure passage, Boehner had to rely overwhelmingly on his Democratic foes. Announcing the surrender to the press, his position as Speaker fatally undermined, Boehner sarcastically broke into an old Disney classic: "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay, my oh my, what a wonderful day," he sang. Even so, the debt ceiling measure may be the nearest thing to a legislative achievement this year, and perhaps even of Obama's remaining term.

Urquhart/Underwood, who despatched both legislation and opponents with equal brutality, would never have got into such a fix, as the First Fan of House of Cards has been quick to acknowledge. "Man this guy's getting a lot of stuff done," Obama has said of Underwood. "I wish things were that ruthlessly efficient!"

Even in US politics, life can imitate art, as we were also reminded last week by the newly discovered private papers of Diane Blair. Until she died in 2000, Blair was among the closest of Hillary Clinton's friends and advisers. The papers, inevitably, have already been dubbed the "Hillary Archive", painting a picture of an ambitious and driven woman, a "cut-throat strategist" in the words of the conservative news website that broke the story.

Some of the most striking excerpts deal with the former First Lady's feelings about the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Washington scandal that led to her husband's impeachment and still tops any "truth-is-stranger-than-fiction" list. A perfect fit, indeed, for House of Cards.

And publication of the papers now, when speculation grows daily about a possible Hillary presidential bid, is not a coincidence but a deliberate foretaste of how old coals will be raked over by her opponents if she decides to go ahead. Already Rand Paul, himself a near-certain Republican contender in 2016, is publicly warning that a Hillary victory would see the "sexual predator" Bill stalking the corridors of the White House once more.

So, real-life Washington politics may soon get seriously dirty once again. Even sooner, of course, Boehner could be forced out as House Speaker. But the deed wouldn't have the Faustian feel of House of Cards, whose singular feat, in the words of one Congressional devotee, "is to make politics in Washington appear even worse than it is".

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