“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.”
Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in the award-winning Netflix series “House of Cards,” dropped that grim line during his tenure as vice president of the United States. It sums up a worldview taken by the ruthless character during his swift — and bloody — climb to the top rungs of American politics.
During the series, Underwood and his wife Claire have lied and even killed to get to where they are. You might think the way “House of Cards” paints its characters is cartoonish melodrama but according to controversial former presidential assistant Doug Wead, that show’s depiction of Washington politics is as accurate as they come.
“Picture the White House with 100 Frank and Claire Underwoods on staff and you get a little idea of what life is like there,” Wead told the Scripps National Desk. “All of the players can be manipulative.”
He did clear up one slight inaccuracy from that series, however. “Of course, presidents don’t personally commit murder.”
Wead, a New York Times best-selling author, worked as a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and as an advisor to George W. Bush. He said watching “House of Cards” brings back vivid memories.
“I have literally put the show on pause and told my children stories from real life that mimic exactly what is going on,” he said.
The nation’s highest office has been at the center of many movies and television shows over the years. They range from critically-acclaimed depictions of real-life former presidents like 2008’s Academy Award-nominated “Frost/Nixon” to panned fictionalized comedies like 2004’s “Welcome to Mooseport.” When it comes to accuracy, Wead said Hollywood is hit or miss.
Presidential historian Doug Wead says Washington, D.C. is full of Frank and Claire Underwoods. (Photo: Netflix)
“Almost any movie or TV portrayal of a president is flawed but some are more accurate than others,” he said. “Each president is different in their own way … so what may be an accurate theatrical representation of one president will differ greatly from another — and both may be right or wrong.”
There are apparently a few self-evident truths about the office of commander in chief which Mead said movies and TV nearly always get wrong.
“Movie producers almost always underestimate the power of the president’s celebrity,” he said, referring to characters that act “too relaxed" or "too glib in the president’s presence.”
“He dominates the room. Every room. And almost every conversation.” Wead said that when he sees a character in a dramatization acting like it’s no big deal to be around the president, he can’t buy it.
He also said it rings untrue when a movie depicts the president as an “open, team-oriented” guy, referring specifically to NBC’s Emmy Award-winning series “The West Wing.”
“Presidents quickly become corrupted and become more private,” Wead said. “Because of the nature of the office, all of them become isolated.”
Wead mostly praised Oliver Stone’s 2008 film “W,” which recounted the career of George W. Bush, aside from a few inaccuracies. “They had Karl Rove advising (Bush) back in the ’80s. I never saw Karl or even heard of him back then and was with (Bush) almost every day.” He complimented the film’s use of real conversations but then added, “The movie still managed to portray him as ‘the dummy’ characterized by ‘Saturday Night Live’, which was inaccurate.”
Wead gave credit to the fact-checkers on Steven Spielberg’s 2012 Oscar-winning “Lincoln.” “Like a good newspaper editor, they didn’t use a conversation unless confirmed by more than one source,” he said.
But which Hollywood depiction of a president got it most right? In Wead’s opinion, 2012’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” starring Bill Murray as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is tops.
“(That’s) the best presidential movie. The most accurate from history, in my humble opinion,” Wead wrote in an email. “It was a small but complicated piece of neglected history that I had been researching and it was done exceptionally well.”
Clint Davis is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @MrClintDavis.