WASHINGTON — On Sunday night, Beau Willimon, the showrunner, co-creator and executive producer of the new Netflix show House of Cards, received an email from his close friend, Mike Lynch, the chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Lynch wanted to tell Willimon that “everywhere he goes, he’s hearing people talk about the show,” Willimon said.
He isn’t the only one.
In the two weeks since it became available to the public on Netflix, and roughly three weeks after the first two episodes premiered for an invite-only crowd at the Newseum, House of Cards has become a cultural touchstone on Capitol Hill, having tapped into two of the preeminent streaks in Congress: Unwavering political nerdiness and vanity.
During the show’s debut weekend, I stopped by a friend’s Washington row house, where the roommates include a city government reporter and a Capitol Hill staffer, both twentysomethings.
“You’ve got to watch it,” they raved.
Indeed, the question, “Have you seen House of Cards?” has become nearly as common on the Hill as ill-fitting men’s suits and networking coffees, and Twitter chatter has spiked in kind.
The show follows House Majority Whip Francis Underwood, a South Carolina Democrat who launches a complex, intensive political war after he is passed over for Secretary of State.
His plot is helped along (although not always wittingly) by his wife, Claire Underwood, who heads up a nonprofit; Zoe Barnes, a young reporter who foregoes a traditional news model — and most ethical standards — to churn out Internet-friendly scoops; Rep. Peter Russo, a self-destructive Pennsylvania Democrat dogged by scandal; and a host of others.
The drama unfolds in DC in general and under the Capitol dome in particular, a reality-rooted point of reference that has attracted Hill staffers to the show — for the occasionally astounding attention to detail as well as the more power-driven, dark version of Washington the show portrays, a capital overflowing with corruption, scandal and self-interest of the highest orders.
“First and foremost we have to entertain, and entertaining is a mix of creating an authentic world which people are willing to believe in but at the same time not getting so bogged down in the details,” said Willimon, who also wrote the film The Ides of March. But, he added, “We did a crapload of research.”
The show’s production designer, Donald Burt, walked the halls of the Capitol and its adjacent office buildings obsessively to take photos, even “literally took pictures of sprinkler units to make sure they were the right make and model,” Willimon said.
In summer 2011, the writing team and a few producers took a “field trip” to DC, where they met with lawmakers, staffers, lobbyists, journalists, consultants (at SKDKnickerbocker and The Glover Park Group, among others), and employees at federal departments and agencies. Lynch invited them to Schumer’s office, where they met with the senator. The group planned to tour the West Wing of the White House, but were interrupted when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid arrived to negotiate with the president.
And during the show’s production, Kevin Spacey, who plays Underwood, visited the Capitol to meet with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who, in a rare move, invited Spacey to attend a closed-door House Republican conference meeting. Spacey also met with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who “talked at length with Kevin about what it’s like to be a whip,” Willimon said.
“These people were incredibly cooperative,” Willimon said. “It’s a large reason why anything approaching authenticity was possible.”
Willimon entered the writing process with more political knowledge than is average, having worked first with Lynch on Schumer’s senatorial campaign in 1998, and then on campaigns for Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, and Hillary Clinton.
He was often joined by Jay Carson, his close friend who later inspired Willimon’s protagonist in The Ides of March, and who is now the political consultant for House of Cards.
As Willimon developed the script and Carson pitched anecdotes from his time in politics, their political backgrounds drove the friends to pay close attention to factual details.
“We always, always, always wanted to make sure everything in the show was possible,” said Carson, who worked as press secretary for former Sen. Tom Daschle. “It may not have happened before, but it isn’t impossible.”
He added, “Politics is done so poorly so often, and we were dead-set to get it right.”
Aesthetically, the result set many Hill staffers double-taking.
“Even the ‘do not enter’ signs are the same,” said Allen Klump, the communications director for Rep. Jeff Duncan, “the framed whip in the office, the front lobby is identical, the visitor tags — all those details are perfect.”
Indeed, House of Cards is perceived on the Hill as true enough to life in some regards that many aides who gushed about the show off the record subsequently refused to be interviewed for this piece, fearing it might reflect poorly on their bosses or themselves.
Underwood, the House Majority Whip and the story’s gravitational center, is a lawmaker from Gaffney, S.C., who attended Sentinel military school for college and rose quickly in politics thereafter. He is ruthless and deft, and will undercut even those closest to him to maintain and expand his power.
The character is so believable that he has spurred a guessing game of sorts among staffers and reporters on the Hill as to what lawmakers might have served as inspiration.
Real-life House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s press secretary Mike Long dismissed the notion that his boss served as any basis for Underwood:
Nope. MT @AlexPappasDC: If you’re not watching House of Cards yet, do it. Is Kevin McCarthy as manipulative as Kevin Spacey’s character?— Mike Long
Nu Wexler, communications director for Sen. Richard Blumenthal, speculated:
Congressman Frank Underwood is totally Tom DeLay. #HouseOfCards— Nu Wexler
And another aide guessed that Underwood could be an amalgam of a few South Carolina lawmakers: former Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat whose district included Gaffney; former Rep. Gresham Barrett, a South Carolina Republican who attended The Citadel, a military college in Charleston; and Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and former House Majority Whip.
Willimon said Underwood’s character is an amalgam, but of “many, many dozens of people, and then completely fictional aspects.”
So, too, is Slugline, the Internet-based news outlet for which Barnes decides to work after she leaves a more traditional paper, the Washington Herald.
“We know who’s out there and we know who’s moving and shaking in the online world,” Willimon said. “BuzzFeed was certainly among the places we kept an eye on.”
Barnes’ character has been of particular fascination and disgust to reporters on the Hill, particularly because she sleeps with Underwood for stories. Some journalists have dismissed the overall portrayal of reporters as outlandish.
“I can tell you for a fact that while it might not be happening in every hotel room in a five-mile radius, it is a way of life out there and those reporters do exist,” Willimon said.
One Hill reporter struggled to think of “any female reporter who behaves like Zoe,” but said the show nevertheless “gives a pretty good sense of how the Hill works and how things get done. Or, at least, how I imagine things get done.”
But Willimon emphasizes that he set out to create “completely fictional character(s), and viewers draw their own conclusions. Then you have a conversation.”
Add to that the excitement of an occasional Roll Call sighting or Politico shoutout, and the conversation has escalated to a noticeable din, enough to create a unique, collective cultural moment on the Hill.
On a recent weeknight, one House Democratic communications director had planned to attend a semi-regular networking happy hour with flacks and journalists, but considered starting “House of Cards” instead.
“My plans tonight, rather than going to…happy hour, involve watching multiple episodes,” the communications director said, adding, “I’m quite excited.”
The staffer emailed later from the bar (“Full disclosure: I ended up coming!”), but added, “I’m definitely watching when I get home.”