Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Kind of President is Francis Underwood?

Now in its third season, the Netflix juggernaut House of Cards now has the ruthless protagonist Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the White House. Spacey's fictional presidency begs comparison with the real ones - so here it goes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)  The shadow of FDR looms heavily on the modern presidency. A New York aristocrat who believed in the power of people and government, he envisioned a compassionate society based on economic justice. But don't be fooled, FDR also mastered the art of intrigue. On House of Cards, President Underwood launched his own quasi-New Deal program entitled "America Works." FDR and Underwood are both Machiavellian to the core and live by the following quote from The Prince, "The Lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.  One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves."

Harry Truman (1945-53)  They share little in common, except a humble background and a belief in hard work. Although Truman never attended college, he was a voracious reader of history and biography. The knowledge served him well as President in the heady years after WWII. Truman would've seen right through Underwood's facade of integrity - for such figures often appear in history.

John F. Kennedy (1961-63) Coincidentally, Spacey once appeared as a Kennedyesque politician on the 80s TV show Crime Story.  JFK, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his history book Profiles in Courage, personified the cool intellectualism of the early 60s. In season 3, Francis invites a famous novelist named Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to write a book about his "America Works" program. Underwood appreciates the power of the written word, but is too much the political animal to be considered an intellectual, symbolized by his passion for violent video games.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)  Could Underwood be the bastard son of LBJ?  Both honed their political acumen in the House of Representatives through flattery, intelligence, even physical intimidation (Underwood keeps a portrait of LBJ in his office).  LBJ, like Underwood, came to power under dire circumstances and rumors of his complicity in the JFK assassination remains gospel among conspiracy theorists, an idea Oliver Stone suggested in JFK.  Robert Caro's masterful multi-volume biography of LBJ remains unmatched in its description of American politics, thus making the books an excellent companion piece to House of Cards.

Richard M. Nixon (1969-74)  As Howard Hunt observed in Oliver Stone's Nixon, "Richard Nixon is the darkness."  The same could be said of Underwood. While Watergate continues to loom over Nixon's place in history, even his harshest critics concede he changed the course of American foreign policy. Much of the fireworks in season 3 comes from Underwood's shaky relationship with the Putin-like Russian President.  His pursuit of personal diplomacy meets with mixed results at best; he desperately needs a Kissinger for guidance.

Gerald Ford (1974-77) The one president Francis doesn't want to emulate. Ford came to the presidency after Nixon's resignation, but lost his own bid for the presidency. Underwood recoils at the thought of being a footnote to history.

Jimmy Carter (1977-81)  Unfortunately, Carter's something of a pariah among the modern presidents. Carter's plainspoken honesty and unpretentious attitude seemed right for the Post-Watergate era, but his unassuming style quickly wore thin.  On July 15, 1979 in his "crisis of confidence" speech he actually took Americans to task for their consumerism.  A different era. Underwood and Carter do share a Southern heritage (Underwood prefers to downplay his white trash origins).

Ronald Reagan (1981-89)  Ronnie and Francis understand the power of rhetoric. When Underwood comes into conflict with his hired writer Yates, it resembles the debacle between Reagan and his official biographer Edmund Morris.  Morris, known for his erudite biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, grew so bored with his subject he wrote a fictional/post-modern interpretation of Reagan's life.  Yates favors a similar approach to writing about Underwood.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001) Spacey and Clinton are good friends. Do they discuss the show? Could it get awkward? The marriage of Francis and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) recalls the Clinton marriage in obvious ways.  The Underwood marriage almost manages to humanize the characters. And Wright's brave performance really anchors the series.  As President, Francis appoints her as UN ambassador as he prepares to make his own run for the presidency.

Barack Obama (2009-current) - President Obama is a big fan of House of Cards. How does the show reflect the contemporary political environment?  Of course there's polarization, a situation ripe for a charismatic sociopath like Underwood to achieve power.  And yet something about the presidency has diminished despite the media's attempt to frame every election as the most important one in history.  Presidents now devote much of their time to fundraising and wooing their corporate sponsors.  Perhaps therein lies the appeal of Underwood, no one owns him and he does what he wants, proof the show is pure fiction.

Darth Vader - Darth and President Underwood are known to be demanding of their subordinates and not above killing anyone who gets in their way.  If Underwood could apply the "force choke" on his cabinet, he'd do it in a heartbeat.  Nevertheless, House of Cards does provide a plausible scenario where a tyrant could come to power.  Will the constitution stop Francis Underwood?


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