Recently, we interviewed Wendy Schiller, Professor of Political Science, to discuss the latest season of
Politics 101 House of Cards. Her Introduction to the American Political Process and The American Presidency courses are favorites among the student body, and she has numerous years of experience working in Washington D.C. with real Frank Underwoods, Doug Stampers, and Jackie Sharps. She first started watching the show after her students raved about it in her various classes. After some Spring Break bingeing, she was ready for the interview. Her wealth of knowledge made for an enlightening and slightly terrifying interview.
Be forewarned: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. If you haven’t finished the second season, well, I don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life. But also avoid the following interview if you are as emotionally invested in the show as most of its viewers. Without further ado, BlogDailyHerald presents to you an exclusive interview with the one, the only, Wendy Schiller:
BlogDH: What is your general take on the show?
Professor Schiller: I think the show is a sophisticated look at the way that ambitious politicians think ahead. They don’t just think about what their actions will do for them now and today, but that politics is like a game of chess, and they always look ahead.
Blog: Do you have a favorite scene or episode, and if so, why?
WS: I don’t have a particularly favorite scene or episode… I think in the very beginning, when he plots to undermine the Secretary of State nominee, I thought that was a big tell. I thought you could figure it out pretty quickly. I knew what he was going for when he approached the next woman to be the Secretary of State. I thought, “I get what this guy is going to be doing.” I do think the scenes between Frank Underwood and his wife, Clare, were really some of the most honest kinds of scenes between political couples, particularly ambitious political couples.
Blog: On that note, is this a very common, or accurate, depiction—this cold, calculated way in which they think about everything? In the interview that Claire gives in episode four of the second season, the interviewer does question the validity of their marriage. Do you think the interviewer is right in her assessment, or do you think there is more to their relationship?
WS: I think that when you look at these long-term politicians that are ambitious, they make decisions about whom they’re going to marry and whether that person will be a good political partner for them. These are the kinds of decisions everyone makes in marriage in some way, shape, or form, but in politics, people who really want to go far think, “Will this person facilitate my career? Will this person be an asset to me?”
Blog: What do you think the effect of sensationalizing the government in these types of television shows is on the citizenry or the average voter?
WS: It only enhances and increases the cynicism that is already out there. Congress only has—by any stretch—9 to 14 percent approval. People don’t trust government. People don’t trust politicians. What’s interesting about your generation is that House of Cards seems like theatre and it seems so cold, but anyone who grew up knowing Watergate believes this is what governments do. It’s not surprising to that very much older generation that seems to be most in love with the show. What’s surprising to me is that your generation is so in love with House of Cards, because it seems very disillusioning. That’s not typically what you find when you have 18, 19, 20 year-olds in college.
Blog: I agree. I think our generation might have these idealistic notions of what the government is, but then we have scandals like the bridge closing with Chris Christie that open everyone’s eyes. It makes us think, “Well, wait, House of Cards might be real. It might be how things work.”
WS: I also think House of Cards is Shakespearian. It’s not an accident that Kevin Spacey is a trained Shakespearian actor and has been at the Old Vic in London for a long time. He does amazing theatre work. You need someone like that to do this because it’s very Shakespearian. It’s about how power corrupts, how ambition gets you to a certain place at very high costs, and a partnership between a man and a woman to get there.
Blog: Now for some more specific questions… How feasible is that someone could ascend to that level of leadership—to become the president—without gaining any votes? I know it’s a far stretch, but is it based in some truth?
WS: Yes, well in a very limited way it’s modeled after Gerald Ford. Gerald Ford was a Congressperson from Michigan and he served in the Congress as the minority leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives. Spiro Agnew [ed. What a name.] was the vice president of the United States—he was a senator from Maryland originally. He got into tax trouble so he had to resign. This was before Watergate. It was 1972, early 1973. In 1972, Spiro Agnew has to resign so President Nixon picks the party leader form the House, sort of like Frank Underwood, and that guy is Gerald Ford. A very well-liked, very well-respected guy. Then Richard Nixon has to resign because of Watergate, and Ford becomes President. So it’s modeled after a real sequence of events, minus the corruption factor. Gerald Ford was not Frank Underwood.
Blog: What about the validity of the Chinese back-channeling? To the extent of your knowledge, is that something that happens on Capitol Hill?
WS: I think there is a lot of corporate influence on the Hill, without question. All corporations that are really big are multi-national, and they worry a great deal about their relationship with our partners, particularly China. But there are some very strict rules about foreign lobbying. That’s why they get into trouble. If you are a foreign person, you cannot contribute to political campaigns and you can’t actually lobby unless you register as a lobbyist on behalf of a foreign nation. There are some fairly strict rules against that, so that would be something that would not be politically smart for any incumbent President, Vice President, or party leader to backchannel foreign contributions.
Blog: What about Doug Stamper, this crony of Frank’s that makes his problems disappear?
WS: Oh… I think he is absolutely—except for committing violence and such—he is pretty real. If you think about the perception of, as I said, Watergate going back to a much older generation, there were these two guys named Harry Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. They are like Doug Stamper. There are plenty of staffers who are that dedicated and really will rise the ranks. Loyalty will be rewarded. Breaking the law, per se, is not something that is encouraged the way it is in the show, but certainly having people who hitch their wagons to someone in Congress—very realistic.
Blog: So I touched upon the Claire Underwood interview a bit earlier. What was your reaction to the interview in which she admitted to both being a victim of rape and also getting an abortion?
WS: First off, I though that was unrealistic. Anybody who thought they were going to be the wife of the future president—either through backchannels or elections—would probably not have made that statement in that interview on live television, even though it’s 2014. However, I thought the sequence of the interview was important—making the statement and coming back and saying, “I was raped and this was a product of that happening.” That was incredibly calculated. I think that is a conversation that I have no expectation would happen in the near future.
Blog: After the interview is done, the interviewer leans over and says, “This is going to make waves like you never imagined.” If that were to happen in real life, what do you think the reaction of the public would be? They do depict some protests. They do start to try to pass this bill that will help curtail rape in the military. Do you think these seem like two realistic ways for the public to react?
WS: No, I thought the entire premise of that sexual assault military bill was based on a real bill, on a real conflict between two very powerful women in the Senate—Claire McCaskill and Kirsten Gillibrand. They’ve come up with a compromise, but it hasn’t been passed yet. So that is very real, but I think that sequence is completely unrealistic. I don’t think that would have happened. I think the idea that she could maintain her privacy on that issue—and we’ll see if there’s a third season—might be hard to maintain. It was obviously a lie. I think that’s a very big stretch.
Blog: Now moving on to the role of the whip, particularly Jackie as the new whip. The tactics that she uses—do you think that would persuade people? Is that how things actually get done? Similarly, there is an episode in which Frank is stuck in the office in Congress when there’s an anthrax scare. He is with someone from his own party with whom he doesn’t see eye to eye. He has trouble getting him to agree on something. First, how do you get people within your own party to vote the way you want them to? Second, if it’s so hard to do it within your own party, how do you even cross bipartisan lines?
WS: It’s not as hard as it used to be, because polarization is so strong. It is pretty realistic though. You find out as much as you can about the person. If there’s any dirt, you’ll use it against them. But most of the time you start with an offer. What do you need and what I can I get for you? I think that happens all the time. So that’s pretty realistic. I think that scene where she tells the Congress people she’s not going to give them anything and they’re going to vote her way—that’s really just the implicit threat of a primary challenge. That’s modeled after a guy named Tom DeLay who was a Republican majority whip under George W. Bush. And that’s who Frank Underwood is partly modeled after. He was a very powerful guy. He got into some legal trouble, so he had to resign. But that is who that whip is modeled after. People aren’t stupid. They want to hold out for something. What are you going to give me for it?
Blog: What about Raymond Tusk? He seems to have a huge amount of control, especially over the President in ways that he is not even aware of. What is the role of these big donors on Capitol Hill? Do they really have the politicians in their pockets like the show depicts it?
WS: When you think about that, think about the number and range of things the party votes on. It’s really about having the leadership in your pocket. The leadership in the House in particular brings things to the floor. If the leadership is on your side and you’re a big important contributor, then if there’s a bill you don’t want to come up, it won’t come up.
Blog: Wow. So, for a period of the show, President Walker refuses to talk to Frank because he thinks Frank is behind the whole impeachment scandal. It raises the question, how involved typically is the Vice President? I’m sure it varies but…
WS: Well, that’s historical. Some presidents consult their VPs. It’s very well known that Kennedy didn’t talk to Lyndon Johnson very much. Eisenhower barely talked to Nixon when he was his VP. It is the case that the President will simply avoid or not talk to the VP. With very few exceptions, the VP cannot just walk into the Oval Office whenever he wants. He needs an appointment like everybody else.
Blog: Why do you think it is that certain presidents rely more heavily on the VPs?
WS: I think certain presidents decide that the VP will cover certain territory that they need covered in a competent way that will be good for them so they give them those responsibilities. Bill Clinton did that with Al Gore and I think President Obama has done that with Vice President Biden. In some cases, you are picking someone for political reasons to get elected that you don’t particularly want to govern with.
Blog: The next question is about the idea of the mandate to rule. Once things go really poorly—President Walker gets into the single-digit approval rating territory—he says he will step down; he no longer has legitimate mandate to rule. Would a president do that?
WS: Yes, a President would do that. Nixon stepped down because he thought the House was going to impeach him. He thought he might lose that impeachment, but more than that, he genuinely thought he didn’t want to go down in history as being an impeached President. I think he also understood that after Vietnam, it was simply too much to bear to go through an impeachment proceeding. Every President wants to be President; they’re ambitious. It doesn’t mean they don’t love their country at the same time. Bill Clinton did not feel the same, because it wasn’t the same kind of offense.
Blog: Finally, where do you see the show going?
WS: Well, we don’t know what happened to Doug Stamper; we don’t know if he is dead or alive. Certainly that woman Rachel will come back to haunt everybody. And I think this lie is going to come back to haunt Claire. If I were a writer, that’s what I would be thinking about. Just as Ford took over the presidency in 1974—he had to run for President in 1976—Frank Underwood so too will be in that position. So they’re going to model this on how he is going to win reelection when he only has less than a year or maybe year and a half to campaign.
Professor Schiller, thank you for awesome insights. Brunonia is a better, and more informed, place because of you!