While in elected office, I had to deal with the things I was doing that annoyed other people. Now, I get to talk about things that others do that annoy me.

Having retired from Congress, I have enough intellectual energy left over from public policy issues to spend on some nonpolitical irritations.

Today’s first subject is still somewhat political, but it is a fictional misrepresentation of political reality.

“House of Cards,” the Netflix series, has no stronger relation to political reality than the ratings given by Standard and Poor’s to packages of subprime mortgages had to economic truth.

Having watched several episodes, I agree that it is well acted. My problem is that it might mislead people into thinking that this is the way our political system actually works.

It is not.


In one respect it treats politicians — or rather one politician — with far too much respect.

The lead character is a superman of the sort that I have never seen because no such figure exists. In the episodes I watched, this fictional congressman, very ably portrayed by Kevin Spacey, was perfect.

His strategies were brilliant; his tactics superbly executed; his ability to manipulate everybody else in government — the speaker of the House, the president and other members of Congress — unchallenged and wholly unrealistic.

A far better portrayal of how government actually works was “The West Wing,” in which the characters made mistakes, were occasionally wrong in their judgments, failed to anticipate important events, and were often troubled by doubts.

Not the Kevin Spacey character. He always knows exactly what to do, and does it perfectly.

In other respects, “House of Cards” demeans the democratic process in ways that are unfair, inaccurate, and if they were to be believed by a substantial number of the public, deeply unfortunate.


The character is wholly amoral. He has no political principles, either substantive or procedural. There is no issue about which he cares; no tactic he will not employ, no matter how unfair it is to others; and he is thoroughly dishonest.

I have never met anyone in a position of power in Congress who resembles that caricature.

There are specific ludicrous examples.

He was able to prevent the speaker of the House from seeing the president of the United States. Nonsense.

The notion that the majority whip would have the power to step between the president and the speaker is as fanciful as the zombie series with which it competes for viewers.

In another preposterous episode, the police commissioner of Washington — a nonexistent position — is summoned to a post-midnight meeting with the Spacey character’s chief of staff and is persuaded to release a congressman from a drunken driving charge by the promise of aid in his campaign for mayor.


In fact, the citizens of Washington deeply resent congressional refusal to let them make their own decisions about public policy. They are so angry at Congress most of the time — with excellent reason — that accepting any intervention of that sort by a congressional leader would be the dumbest thing a mayoral candidate could do. I have never seen that kind of involvement by a congressional leader in a Washington election.

A third example was the Spacey character’s maneuvering to shut down the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard by neutralizing the aforementioned drunken congressman, by the threat of exposure.

In the show, that congressman cannot fight for the shipyard, so it is doomed. In reality, that shipyard is protected by four senators, two each from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and at least five House members, all of whom have constituents working there.

There is a constant theme to the flaws in this show: Nothing is remotely close to being as easily manipulated by an amoral strategic superhero as the show portrays.

I admit that I only watched three episodes of this cartoon version of congressional reality. Not having to sit through presentations that neither instruct nor entertain me is one of the nicest things about never being a candidate again. So it is possible that later installments corrected the mistakes of the first few.

Even if they did — and the only adequate way would have been to portray them as dream sequences, a la “Dallas” — mistaken impressions never go completely away.


Dramatic criticism is neither my interest nor my forte.

What troubles me is that people will watch this, think that this is the way government functions and be further disillusioned from trying to influence it.

I hope people will enjoy the drama, but ignore the message.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts. You can follow him on Twitter: @BarneyFrank


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