I grew up in a small town and went to college in the Midwest, got my first “real” job on the East Coast, and moved to Washington, D.C. I’m sure the Washingtonians could smell fresh blood the moment I stepped out of the car. Although I have been here for a few years, I always find Washington, D.C., hard to describe—it isn’t a normal city and it doesn’t play by normal rules. Manners are rare and the smile exotic. If the district had a “state” song and a “district” animal… it would be “Money” by Pink Floyd and the indestructible cockroach.
Yes, Washington, D.C., is gorgeous and a lot of good people work and live here; the picturesque bridges over the Potomac River, the utopian dream that is George Washington Parkway, and constant influxes of young, bright-eyed people who want to change the world. However, despite its white, marble buildings and shining waters, D.C. is not all that it seems. Rules have been suspended within the 68.3 sq miles of the District. In fact, D.C. becomes a sort of alternative universe compared to the rest of the country.
A lot of television shows are set here, most recently, the political-thriller House of Cards (HoC). Why is D.C. a popular “show” location? Probably because any ridiculous plot line can work here—anything can happen and be believable. As a Washingtonian watching HoC, it is easy to say that its “fiction” is more similar to reality than one would like to admit. Be afraid. The following are three HoC characters you would meet in D.C.—Washingtonians know them well.
SPOILER ALERT: for those of you who have not seen all of House of Cards, season one, be warned.
1. The Above-Average-Ambitious Washingtonian: Frank Underwood
The first scene of episode one depicts Frank Underwood suffocating a dog. (What a nice introduction!) While the dog was most likely going to be put down anyway, how many people could stomach doing it with their bare hands? Frank could. A few scenes later, Frank the dog killer is passed over for the position of secretary of State. A promise to him was not kept (wrong thing to do to someone who is capable of smothering an animal). Frank vows revenge and the plot is set.
Now, this might have seemed like an “episode one on steroids” — within the first 15 minutes the main character has already killed an animal (sorry I keep harping on this — I just love dogs), plotted retribution against his own political party, and turned the audience’s interpretation of a lot of things on its head–but this example of flip-flopping at warp speed isn’t far from the truth. Frank’s swift vow of revenge can be attributed to “Climbing-Ladder Syndrome,” a sickness commonly found in Washington, D.C. residents. Symptoms include rash decisions, swearing, and wishing ruin on everyone around them; some may even resort to watching YouTube videos of piano-playing cats. Causes can be, but are not limited to, being passed over for a job, being back-stabbed, and/or being lied to. I think psychologists could find a correlation between proximity to Capitol Hill or the White House and levels of anxiety.
The Frank Underwood character is the devil hiding inside every ambitious person — but in HoC, we get to see the devil in action. He is chaos, he is the Nordic god Loki. His outbursts and actions are those that many of us ponder in the dark recesses or our minds, but never act out because of morality. But D.C. has no rules, remember?
The pursuit of power is like a sickness—once you get a taste for it, you want more–and if the door is shut, you get out your sledgehammer and create a new one. The almost desperate decisions that you see in HoC are pretty standard for a city bent on attaining power, and backstabbing, ladder-climbing, and the pursuit of “the next best thing” are the main food staples of the District. Frank Underwood participates in all of this–he loves it. When people trek up to their offices on the Hill, carrying their sledgehammers, they know what they are getting into.
2. The Über Devoted Staffer: Doug Stamper
Man, is he creepy—and when I say “creepy” I mean he is creepy good at his job. He makes problems go away and dreams up new ones when they need to be exploited: he is a political minesweeper. Politicians play dirty and, truth be told, their staff members sometimes add “minion” to the end of their business cards’ title line. Many viewers probably see the Stamper character as well-written fiction. Wrong. “Stampers” are real.
I am going to pull a “Zoe Barnes” and put a “details gag order” on myself for this next tidbit. I happened to be in state X (it was not D.C.) and I witnessed a person trespassing on private property, taking pictures of me, my companion, and our surroundings. After a short car pursuit, police involvement, and admission of guilt, it came out that this law-breaking photog was actually hired by a distinguished member of one of the houses of our bicameral legislature to take pictures of the private party of his opponent—the parent of my companion who was running for his seat. The pictures were taken with the intent of creating fodder for a smear campaign. All he got were snapshots of two people enjoying a leisurely drive through the countryside and the exterior of a garage. Although a bad photographer, this guy was a Doug Stamper. He was hired to find a weakness—or to create the environment to promote and exploit one. Although this Stamper wasn’t touting prostitutes, drugs, or alcohol as a means to corrupt his employer’s opponent, it was nonetheless dishonest and low and, sadly, illustrates the far-reaching influence of D.C. grime. Doug Stampers exist—they are not HoC fiction. In D.C., in one second, three people could be plotting your demise. The next time someone offers you a drink, ask who he’s really working for.
3. The Naïve Intern: Zoe Barnes
Zoe Barnes is pretty annoying but she isn’t all that bad. The poor girl just wants to be noticed and respected. This sounds like a familiar D.C. phenomenon. Why? It reminds me of the migrant creatures that flock to D.C. in the summer: interns. I have solid experience with, and as, an intern. I was an intern for three months in D.C. and my motto was to just blend in, work hard, and not piss anyone off. Besides that one Marine on the escalator (I apologize, sir), I think I did well. I have dealt with 16 of my own interns so I know the breed well. D.C. interns come to this city intending to take the capital by storm and make long-lasting change. They are a little nosey and sometimes inflate who they are. Like Zoe slipping into the event where she meets Congressman Frank Underwood, I have heard many a tale of interns showing up for closed-door events or even giving themselves new job titles when they meet important people:
Hill Staffer: “So what do you do?
Masquerading Intern: “I’m in Foreign Policy—I am the Research Assistant on X nation at Y think tank.”
Hill Staffer: “Oh really? My fiancee works there and that’s her position.”
Masquerading Intern: Busted
It’s all real, people… and this is just the beginning.