House of Cards Is a House of Cards

Why can't Americans do political intrigue like the Brits?

In Britain's 1990 House of Cards, the Machiavellian minister, Francis Urquhart, is referred to as ‘FU' by those around him. In the American adaptation, released this month in a 13-part series available only on Netflix, the congressman's name is Francis Underwood. Same initials, but you never hear them. The inside joke has gone.

Much more had changed in the Netflix version. The U.S. production wasn't just longer. Like much of American political drama, it was bigger and glosser than its British counterpart. The stakes were higher, the story lines more implausible, the characters at times unrecognizable. (Has anyone ever seen a congressional wife as glamorous as Mrs. Underwood? Or, for that matter, an NGO office Anna Wintour would be comfortable holding meetings in?)

Spacey's performance as Underwood lacked the rapier-like realism of Ian Richardson's Urquhart. It wasn't just Spacey's hit-or-miss Southern drawl that was unrealistic, it was his politics too. Would any politician really care about pushing an expensive education bill through the House? A more likely issue would have been defense -- or gambling.

House of Cards isn't the first British production to be heavily made over for American audiences. Fans of the BBC series State of Play, which begins with a House of Commons researcher being pushed to her death on the London Underground, might wonder at the hyperbolic script in the Russell Crowe/Ben Affleck movie adaption. ("Billions of dollars. That's wrath of God money.")

But plausible and watchable don't always mean the same thing. Even fans of original U.S. programming like Scandal24, or Political Animals realize we are not watching anything close to an accurate representation of political intrigue. And as for the West Wing, yes there was oodles of intrigue but very little of it political.

So why is American so bad at this game? The difference begins at the source. Compare London's Prime Minister's Question Time to any debate on Washington's Senate or House floors and you'll immediately understand the difference in style. Britain produces politicians who are at ease making inside jokes and classical references (just look at these recent horsemeat scandal jokes by MPs). Their language is articulate, produced by an education that prizes debate. In London, speeches are more likely to be made than read and sarcasm is a plus. Politicians see themselves as entertainers. (Exhibit A: London Mayor Boris Johnson.) The entertainment takes place in Westminster. Screenwriters just have to adapt what they hear.

There is also a difference in substance based on reality. Take a look back at the headlines and you'll see that betrayal at the highest level took place in the Cold War with Kim Philby, Guy Burges, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt (the Queen's curator) all recruited by the Soviets while at Cambridge.

In the 1960s and 70s, ministers John Profumo and Anthony Lambton had to resign their seats after encounters with prostitutes. More recently, the phone-hacking scandals have exposed a cozy world of networking between politics and media that includes Prime Minister David Cameron, Rupert Murdoch's chief aide Rebekah Brooks, and PR guru and Murdoch son-in-law Matthew Freud (yes, the grandson of Sigmund). Even House of Cards -- the British version -- was based on a three-volume novel written by Michael Dobbs, an advisor to Margaret Thatcher before becoming chairman of the Conservative Party.

Real and fictional intrigue in the United Kingdom tends to be about power based on a class system where relationships are made at boarding school or at Oxford and Cambridge. In England, who you know can be far more useful than how much money you have.

When, for instance, did Rebekah Brooks become a true insider? When Rupert Murdoch promoted her or when she married an old Etonian with an estate close to the Cameron's? Corridors of power don't just run through Westminster but in large country houses that have belonged to the same families for generations.

The Yanks, once again, are different. In the absence of an impenetrable establishment, fictional intrigue in the United States almost invariably revolves around money. Money can buy anything, including the presidency (Scandal). The political landscape changes frequently, but money is always there. The money trail starts in Hollywood, which explains the presence of car chases, multiple shootings, and often the involvement of the entire military in political dramas.

Sometimes there are exceptions to the brashness. See Damages, season 4, which revolved around a private contractor's (John Goodman) role in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. The story line was inspired by recent headlines, and Goodman's portrayal of a patriotic, American military capitalist was extraordinary. The script was tight and lacked hysteria. This has been the one to beat. Unsurprisingly the show wasn't a hit. Maybe it was too subtle for a national palate dulled by Technicolor and Surround Sound.

The Hollywood myth of Washington is that it's a glamorous place. But real life is never glamorous. The Washington of C-Span -- the authentic Washington -- does not sell a lot of popcorn. So filmmakers create a fairy-tale capital, on the premise that there's a life here you suspect but don't see. It's a city of secrets and lies, where elections are bought or rigged and betrayal is an everyday activity. There is no democracy here. There's not much reality either.

Francis Underwood might have been enraged not to have been made secretary of state but in real life he'd have been given something else -- some pork to take home to his district or a lesser cabinet-level post -- and moved on.

In real life, would Underwood have had a driver? Recent headlines from London have proved that the better story would have existed if he didn't. Ten years ago, minister Chris Huhne persuaded (coerced?) his wife to perjure herself and take his points on a speeding ticket for going 69 mph in a 50 mph speed zone. The case is currently gripping Britain. Because of one traffic violation, Huhne's political career is over and he and his now ex-wife face prison time.

Over in Denmark, the traffic stakes are even smaller. In Borgen, fictional Danish Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg bikes to work, leaving behind a messy house, two kids (one a troubled teen), and a dissatisfied husband. At the office she deals with the same problems her fictional counterparts in London and Washington are facing: an unwanted war, a difficult media, rich and powerful corporate bosses, a tanking economy, and disloyalty in the ranks. There are no frills in this production, where coffee and pastries play a prominent role. But there's an authenticity here that Underwood's implausible rib-eating lifestyle completely lacks.

To the extent that Americans compete in the political humor business, it's only because of -- you guessed it -- more British knockoffs. But it's hard to export the jokes. One comedy writer, in this case a Scotsman, has successfully made power funny on both sides of the Atlantic. Armando Iannucci is the creator of both the British The Thick of It and HBO's Veep. Those of you who haven't seen The Thick of It might remember Ianucci's 2009 film based on the series In the Loop. (In any case, episodes are now available on Hulu.) Veep, a half-hour comedy show about a female vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld fame, is good but not great. The Thick of It, however, is brilliant. Its scope is broader -- the show spans all English political parties, ministers and civil servants -- yet its writing is tighter, subtler, more mature. Compare the two scenes below: Where Veep uses a sledgehammer, The Thick of It employs more precise tools.


"I was trying to use Jonah for intelligence."

"That's like trying to use a croissant as a fucking dildo. No, no, no, no, let me be more clear. It doesn't do the job. And it makes a fucking mess."

The Thick of It

"You're wanted at Downing Street ASAFP."

"F meaning..."

"Feasibly I should imagine."

Netflix reportedly spent $100 million making the dramatic House of Cards. But the funniest and most authentic American political comedy, Battleground, is on Hulu, which picked it up after Fox passed. Battleground is the "mockumentary" story of an election to the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin. The star lies in third place. There's no money in the production or the election. No spoilers as to the outcome here. But if you want American political authenticity, this is the one to watch.

Melinda Sue Gordon


Sink or Swim

Why doesn't America train its diplomats?

Imagine the following scenario: A 29-year-old restaurant manager becomes a U.S. diplomat. Five years later, he is appointed the founding director of the Arabian Peninsula office of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a major State Department program aimed at creating and strengthening civil society in a region vital to global stability.

Even though he is considered a good officer in general, the young diplomat has little idea how to do his new job. He speaks no Arabic and has never managed people or a budget outside a restaurant -- let alone $2 million of taxpayers' money. He has minimal knowledge of democracy promotion, institution-building, or grant-making, but he is expected to identify suitable NGOs in eight countries and award them grants to build an alternative to the authoritarian regimes across the Middle East.

Despite the diplomat's obvious inexperience, he is sent to his new post in Abu Dhabi without a day of training. The State Department expects him to learn how to do his job by osmosis -- to watch colleagues, figure things out on his own, improvise, and rely on luck.

There is no need to imagine this scenario -- it actually happened in 2004 to a U.S. Foreign Service officer named Hans Wechsel. Having completed his undergraduate degree in secondary education at Montana State University, Wechsel managed restaurants in Montana and Oregon before passing the difficult written and oral Foreign Service exams in 1999. He is the first to admit that his performance in Abu Dhabi suffered from lack of training.

According to Wechsel, his superiors in Washington provided "no guidelines" beyond "vague ideas about how this was supposed to work." In fact, he got the impression that they "hadn't really figured it out themselves, because they hadn't had a regional MEPI office before." Wechsel did quite well in Abu Dhabi given the circumstances, but he wishes he had arrived there with at least some of the knowledge and experience he acquired on the job.

Why did the State Department send a diplomat without the necessary skills -- and more importantly, without any training -- to a critical posting in the most volatile region in the world on the eve of the Arab uprisings? Could the U.S. response to those uprisings have been more effective had American diplomats there been better trained?

Wechsel's experience is actually very common in the Foreign Service, if not the norm. Many officers compare it to being thrown into the deep end and having to learn how to swim. Having good mentors helps greatly, they said, but that is largely a matter of luck; there are bad as well as good bosses in the Foreign Service. For decades, the State Department has considered training "a waste of time," said Grant Green, who was undersecretary of state for management during George W. Bush's administration.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was shocked when he took office in 2001 that the "concept of professional development, particularly with respect to leadership and management," didn't exist in the Foreign Service. "There were many people in senior positions who didn't have not only leadership skills but training, either. They didn't know basic things," he told me shortly before leaving office in 2005.

Since Powell's tenure at the State Department, there has been a stronger emphasis on training, and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the department's training facility, now offers leadership and management courses. "One of our goals has been to try to keep demonstrating the value-added of training -- it isn't just a nice thing to do, but it makes people more productive, better-skilled diplomats, and stronger leaders," said FSI Director Ruth Whiteside.

But professional development for American diplomats -- beyond learning on the job -- is still largely nonexistent. FSI focuses mostly on foreign-language instruction, as well as on consular and other technical training. It does provide classes in political, economic, and other "tradecraft," but they are often vague or outdated, according to many Foreign Service officers. I witnessed some of that firsthand in several classes I attended as part of the research for my recently published book, America's Other Army.

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, a union for diplomats, said the organization "wants to shift the focus from training to professional formation and education for diplomatic practice" because "both areas need serious and sustained attention and work."

Several ambassadors and other senior managers overseas told me that entry-level officers are being sent out ill-prepared for their new assignments. "They often don't really know what's going on around them," said Eric Watnik, public affairs counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore. "It would be useful for them to know in more depth, before they go to their first post, what we do in Washington, and what we do overseas."

State Department officials have long blamed the lack of professional development on limited resources and staffing shortages. (It's difficult to let officers take time off for training when you are already short-staffed.) Some also insist that diplomacy is a profession that can only be learned on the job.

But Michael Hammer, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said the ever-increasing demands of modern diplomacy make high-quality training more urgent than ever. "Diplomacy in the 21st century has so many dimensions that you can't just learn it on your own or through osmosis," he said.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed. The Foreign Service "must be a constantly learning organization," she told me in 2012. "There is no doubt that we cannot rest on our laurels," she said. "People have to keep pushing themselves."

There are many talented, capable, and downright heroic Foreign Service officers, some of whom I met while researching my book, for which I visited 52 U.S. embassies and consulates and interviewed about 600 diplomats. Wechsel himself has done very well and received high praise from his superiors. But my research showed that those officers excel mainly because they came into the Foreign Service with superior skill sets, they were lucky enough to receive good mentorship, or they were in the right place at the right time.

The question President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Congress might want to ask is: How many of them would have done even better had they received proper training?