Barney Frank’s Awesome Takedown Of ‘House of Cards’

It’s not as if he was a paragon of sweetness and light while he was a member of Congress, but as Barney Frank puts it in a column this weekend for the Portland Press Herald, “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.” Apparently at the top of his list? The Netflix original series House of Cards, which drives him nuts because he thinks the myth of the all-powerful lawmaker will convince viewers at home that they’re powerless to change the system. He writes:

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.

Frank admits that “Dramatic criticism is neither my interest nor my forte,” but if it was, he might have made the argument that House of Cards’ need to make Frank Underwood into some sort of low-level supervillain, injecting stakes like Congressman-murder into the proceedings actually produces a more boring, generic show than one that was more deeply engaged with the reality of politics and journalism in Washington. Declaring all young political reporters ambitious sluts is less interesting than capturing a spectrum that includes horserace reporters, data nerds, aspiring feature writers, and snappy commentators. Narrowing the question the show asks to whether Frank Underwood is a horrible enough person to do anything in pursuit of power is less interesting — because it’s yes, every single time — than giving him actual limitations and weaknesses. Absolute power tends to circumscribe storytelling and character exploration, rather than keeping them moving. A Parks and Recreation take on Washington would be more revealing than House of Cards’ embrace of darkness as a signifier. Now if only we could find someone to make it with a Barney Frank-like main character.