Check out the previous installments in Becky Graebner’s dissection of House of Cards. Spoiler Warning!
Politicians… we love to hate them. And sometimes we love them more than they deserve.
Politicians have a tough rap in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, many citizens have come to associate public office with corruption. Thanks to the media, it has become the norm to see “scandal” written all over the papers, and these frequent scandals have exposed some of our leaders as immoral, untrustworthy frauds.
Playing with our already preconceived perceptions of politicians in Washington, D.C., House of Cards portrays almost all of its political characters as being corrupt. I shiver to think that there are politicians running around D.C. killing their mentees, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. A lot of the activities seen in HoC are things that our beloved senators, congressmen, and presidents have been caught doing. What’s even more shocking is that the public seems to take them back. Are we so jaded that bad behavior has become the norm? Not quite — but I do blame Disney.
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The Cornucopia of Sin: Peter Russo
Peter Russo is introduced to the audience when he picks up a telephone mid-meeting and yells at his assistant that she should be holding his calls. His anger vanishes as soon as he realizes it is the president — and he carries on a phone conversation as his guest sits waiting, obviously impressed. Only thing is, it is not the president on the other line — it is Russo’s assistant, one room away, talking dirty to him over the phone. Wow — and with that, we meet Peter Russo.
Take two isn’t much better; we find him at his apartment, in bed, with the same assistant (oh, and she does have a name — it is Christina). Great — so, not only is he playing around at work but now he’s actually having a relationship with his assistant. He seems to get worse and worse each time you meet him. Later on we watch as he gets picked up for drunk-driving (while with a prostitute). Strikes three and four.
From there, we see him doing cocaine and mushrooms, and bribing people to do his bidding (or Frank’s bidding as payback for making his DUI disappear). By this point, we hate him. We loathe him — and we feel bad for Christina and his adorable kids. Yes, he has kids! Add “dead-beat dad” to his resume of pathetic titles.
But, even after all of this bad behavior, Peter Russo’s character manages to grow on you. What? I fault Disney and the creation of the thing we call a “Cinderella story.” The audience just can’t help but like Russo as he slowly climbs out of his dark hole (there is some redemption for him after all). Unfortunately for him, although the audience starts to root for him to succeed and become good, he has a tragic ending. He is the Othello to Frank Underwood’s Iago. He was doomed to never succeed.
The Prince of Blackmail: Doug Stamper
Doug, Doug, Doug. He is master at his craft and that is being the eyes and ears of everything in Washington, D.C. Doug isn’t as extreme in his sin as Peter Russo since he isn’t indulging in “vices” himself — such as drugs or alcohol (he does get a strike against him for that one time with the prostitute though). He is evil because he’s a puppeteer. He makes people do what he and Frank want by blackmailing them.
He blackmails Russo to get a false statement from Roy Kapeniak so that Mr. Kern is ruined and cannot be confirmed for secretary of State. His handiwork (the shredded draft for the education bill) is used as ammo to ruin Blythe so that Frank Underwood can swoop in and pick up the pieces — making himself look good. He pays off the prostitute to keep Russo’s DUI a secret and then uses the funds as leverage to make her another useful pawn. Stamper’s steady stream of funds and protection guarantee her cooperation in the plot to destroy Russo. Stamper also meets with a D.C. cop, offering him funds and powerful backers if he decides to run for D.C. mayor.
Stamper is a creep, and his brief charade with the prostitute after he picks her up to find out if she knows that Russo was a congressman is 100% sleazy. However, as with Russo, the audience might be conflicted on how evil Stamper really is. I wouldn’t say that you are rooting for him like Peter Russo on his slow path to redemption, but you get some warm fuzzies when he takes the prostitute in and gives her a roof over her head. He didn’t have to do that — he could have just kept paying her off. Is that a glimpse of humanity we are seeing in Doug? Should we give him another chance? He is an enigma… maybe he will throw us all and turn out to be a good character. Hey, it’s what we are all hoping for in our Disney-loving hearts.
The Director of all Chaos: Frank Underwood
I am honestly at a loss as to where to start regarding Frank. He’s the master of all the bad that happens in House of Cards. He calls the shots that send Stamper into action and his plans are what ruin the lives of several characters: Blythe, Kern, and Russo. He doesn’t do drugs, he doesn’t drink profusely, he doesn’t use prostitutes (although he does cheat on Claire)… his sin is that he has an insatiable taste for power. Frank is very good at making his hands look clean — even though they are the most covered in blood. And, weirdly, even though Frank is (probably) the most “evil” of characters, we still like him — at least I do!
It is probably obvious by reading my takes on Peter Russo and Doug Stamper, above, that I loathe them more than I do Frank. I know, I just said Frank was “the most evil”! But it’s true — I do like Frank. Maybe it’s his southern accent or honest love of BBQ; I just cannot completely hate him.
Why? How? Look at all the evil he is capable of?! This, ladies and gentlemen, is the “Cinderella story” coming back around to haunt us. The public loves a good Cinderella story — we hope that the best in everyone will conquer the evil. And this, I think, this is why we allow corrupt politicians to run our country — we hope that their past transgressions will magically disappear and they will be perfect models of public service. Not only do you see this when we watch fictional shows like HoC (we root for characters to be good and do good deeds — to prove us wrong), but we also apply this thinking to real politicians.
Look Who’s Back…
In real life, Representative Anthony Weiner is attempting to run for mayor of New York City. In case you forgot, Weiner resigned from Congress in June 2011 because he sent inappropriate pictures to a woman via his Twitter account and then lied to the public for several days, claiming he didn’t. In the end, Weiner admitted to sending sexually suggestive photographs to several women over the span of three years. Note: he had been sending these photos for years. He only apologized because he got caught. If he hadn’t, he would probably still be doing it. We are thinking of re-electing his man?
I’ve beaten the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship to death in previous pieces in this series — just remember, we let that gremlin stay on as president and we still give him Secret Service protection. Where is the justice?
It came out a few months ago that Secret Service agents were using prostitutes abroad…
In 1985, Barney Frank’s male prostitute roommate/lover used Frank’s house to run an escort service. Frank stated in the subsequent investigation that he had no idea this was occurring in his residence. He was reprimanded for using his office to clear his lover’s parking tickets and for “misstatements of fact” in a memo regarding his lover’s criminal record. Frank remained in the House of Representatives for 28 more years—leaving in January 2013. What?
The list goes on and on.
We need to let go of our “Disney happy-ending fantasy” and realize that instead of three strikes, we should be using a “one-strike you’re out” policy. House of Cards has shown us that the transgressions of fictional politicians actually mirror that of some real-life Washingtonians.
No, not all politicians are bad — there are a few examples of men and women with real moral fiber on the Hill. Stand tall, you few! But I’m not buying the “they are human and they also have flaws” argument. Throw it out. It doesn’t apply. When a group of people put their trust in one person to “represent” them, they should be the most honorable of men and women. Holding office is serious business and it is a privilege. Whoever is elected, they signed up for this job — they campaigned to have the pleasure of representing the people of their home state in our distinguished government. They should expect to be held to the highest of standards, for their conduct to be scrutinized, their words analyzed, and to be found out (and punished) if they screw up. No excuses. Politicians might surprise us by changing their ways and executing the job they were hired for, faithfully and honorably; but, when they don’t, we need to cut the Russos, Stampers, and Underwoods loose. Otherwise, we’re all doomed.
House of Cards‘ straight-from-the-headlines plot and the recent return of Anthony Weiner to the national scene remind us that real life rarely ends like a Disney movie.