The British are coming! And they’ve already taken over the capital—at least on TV.
Shows and films set in Washington have undergone a dramatic revolution. Gone are the starry-eyed days of The West Wing and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In are the Machiavellian intrigues on House of Cards, the blundering characters on Veep, and the scandals on, well, Scandal. This shift reflects the viewing habits of a more disillusioned American public as well as the sensibilities of millennials (the Girls generation doesn’t do feel-good).
But the changing portrayal of Washington is as much a geographical shift as a generational one. Two of the leading shows in this cynical wave—House of Cards and Veep—are British in origin. House of Cards, whose second season debuts on February 14, is an American recreation of its British namesake—hence the (spoiler alert!) convoluted plotline in which Kevin Spacey’s character seeks to maneuver directly from being House majority whip to president. (In the U.K.’s parliamentary system, an MP can become prime minister by taking down the government; in the American system, Spacey has to take a detour through the vice president’s office.)
Veep, for its part, descends from a long line of British government spoofs—think of it as “Mr. Bean Goes to Washington.” Veep’s Scottish creator, Armando Iannucci, was behind the BBC’s Whitehall satire The Thick of It. His movie spinoff In the Loop lampooned the Anglo-American “Special Relationship.” Iannucci was, in turn, inspired by the BBC’s 1980s classics Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister—the best depictions from either side of the Atlantic of government at its most surreal.
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That’s his newest position on the experiments in Colorado and Washington, though he stopped short of endorsing legalization elsewhere.
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The news that there will be no farm bill this year, after three futile years of embarrassing setbacks and turmoil, made me reflect on the larger issues. Exhibit A is the farm bill, the poster child for the state of dysfunction in Congress and American politics.
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Welcome to live coverage of the Washington Ideas Forum, presented by The Atlantic, the Aspen Institute, and the Newseum. We’ll have live updates on all the speakers at the Newseum in Washington throughout the day right here, so stay with us or check back frequently.
A legal labyrinth has trapped millions of young Americans who work every year without pay, because they are called “interns” rather than “employees.”
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Official “Washington” is wrestling with how long the government will stay closed. But for “D.C.” and the less-well manicured suburban neighborhoods far from K Street and TV stand-up locations, life will continue regardless, as government workers try to figure out just how “essential” they are.
When I was a college intern working for free at a network-news bureau, a young brunette flush from the GOP’s 1994 wins told me over drinks on Capitol Hill, “You really have to pick one side or the other if you ever want to work in this town.” I furrowed my brow and remembered that she was from Florida; it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know that a lot of us actually came from D.C. and Maryland and Virginia. We had friends and family and godparents whose jobs depended not at all on people in power keeping their power. So long as the federal government’s lights stayed on, so would ours. The jobs may not have been exciting, but they were stable. And they allowed homes in Lanham and Cheverly and Temple Hills and places in between to be bought and kids to be raised by those who had them.
There is Washington and there is D.C., and they are two separate places divided only by a handful of miles.
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When Mark Zuckerberg talks with Atlantic editor in chief James Bennet in an interview at the Newseum in Washington on Wednesday, he’ll be speaking as a newly minted D.C. insider. Earlier this year, he co-founded the lobbying organization, FWD.us, dedicated to promoting “policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy.” So far, that has mostly meant immigration reform, although the group’s stated goals also include improving STEM education and increasing the funding available for scientific research. The organization has retained at least two D.C. lobbying firms and run ad campaigns for Republican senators who needed political cover at home so they could cooperate in bipartisan immigration reform in Washington. In doing so, Zuckerberg is positioning himself as a leader on these issues, using as leverage Silicon Valley’s cash, his own celebrity, and a long list of tech notables who have backed FWD.us.
Until recently, Zuckerberg has avoided a public role in politics and policy. But this week’s D.C. blitz is evidence that he has embraced his power to influence public affairs. On Thursday, he will meet with top congressional Republicans and Democrats, including House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The group is slated to discuss immigration reform; over the summer, the Senate passed immigration legislation that would create more work visas for future immigrants, an initiative Zuckerberg and his Silicon Valley allies had been pushing. Prospects for passage in the House have dimmed, but Zuckerberg is clearly trying to keep the issue alive.
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Over the weekend, U.S. Marine Corps captain Matthew Phelps proposed to the love of his life, Ben Schock, at the White House. And that bended knee is now certifiably viral: their pictures have over 8,000 likes on Facebook, more than 17,000 upvotes on Reddit, and 16,000-plus views on imgur (Reddit’s go-to image-hosting platform). It’s easy to see why: an active Marine Corps captain, his boyfriend, and the first gay marriage proposal in the White House— all a year after the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, in the year when gay marriage swept the ballot box and the polls. We emailed with Phelps just now about his newfound Internet fame, the wedding plans, his problem with DOMA, and why he doesn’t feel like that much of an overnight symbol after all.
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It’s weird that the emerging consensus on HBO’s Veep is that it’s unenjoyable because it’s not realistic, and it’s not realistic because it’s too cynical, given that the meme for the last two or 20 years has been that Washington is broken.
The show, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an unprincipled and powerless vice president was endorsed as quite accurate by Jeff Nussbaum, who served as a speech writer for two vice presidents. Nussbaum told GQ’s Reid Cherlin that Veep hits the mark with its wall-to-wall cussing (including “pencil f—king”), the portrayal of patronizing presidential staff, the terrible advice offered by civilians, the codependency of some aides, and even the sets. And yet, it is wrong, all wrong—at least according to political reporters.
"If the aim of this show is to get viewers to disrespect everybody in elected office, mission accomplished," The Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift writes. On Slate’s Political Gabfest, David Plotz said, “The West Wing was inaccurate in that it left out all the incompetence, hilarity, vanity, self-obsession, narcissism of American politics, and this show left out all the idealism and attempt to accomplish things in American politics… But as it happens, this is a moment when there isn’t a lot being accomplished in American politics, so maybe it rings more true.” Plotz’s colleague, John Dickerson, reported that, no, it’s worse: “A show that’s so soaked in cynicism about politics as a work of art smacks as lazy.” […]
The West Wing's idealism was more accurate than Veep's cynicism, Macleans' Jaime Weinman says, because “if you look at political gridlock today, and the causes of it, you’ll often find that it’s caused by anincrease in idealism, and more idealistic people working in government. In the U.S., there’s a lot of hand-wringing about gridlock and the inability of government to get anything done, but the reason for that is that ideology is more important than it ever was before.”
Maybe it depends on how you define “before.” The idea that “Washington is broken” is certainly repeated endlessly these days. Take, for example, The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake explaining why Sen. Bob Portman’s support among political insiders makes him a bad choice for vice-president. “People really, really dislike politicians,” they write. “They hate Washington. They think politics is broken — maybe irreparably.” Maybe irreparably? Americans sound primed for a cynical show!
Read more at The Atlantic Wire. [Image: HBO]