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Storytellers Find Fertile Material in Fictionalizing Washington Dysfunction

August 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Real-life drama in Washington isn't popular in the polls, but it does provide plenty of fodder for modern storytellers. Jeffrey Brown speaks with a few who have found inspiration: Beau Willimon, co-creator of the series "House of Cards," Jay Roach, director of the comedy "The Campaign," and novelist and critic Thomas Mallon.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we conclude our series on governing in a time of gridlock.

Treasury secretary Jack Lew warned yesterday the federal government could hit the limit of its borrowing ability, known as the debt ceiling, by mid-October. That is sooner than anticipated. And it promises to add fuel to the running battle over government spending that has paralyzed Washington in the past.

Boring news for many viewers, perhaps, but, as Jeffrey Brown explains, it’s also fodder for fiction and drama.

JEFFREY BROWN: From a novel of intrigue about Watergate to casting the right actor to play presidential nominee John McCain, or depicting a power-hungry politician who stops at nothing to get his way, our guests have had a hand in portraying Washington in books and on large and small screens, for better and worse.

Beau Willimon is the co-creator and writer of the Netflix series “House of Cards.” He also wrote the screenplay for the film “Ides of March.” Jay Roach directed the comedy “The Campaign” and the television movies “Game Change” about the 2008 campaign and “Recount” about the 2000 election. Novelist and critic Thomas Mallon has written eight novels, including most recently “Watergate: A Novel” and a nonfiction book about President Kennedy’s assassination.

And welcome to all of you.

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I wanted to start with you, Beau Willimon.

What makes Washington a great subject? Why did you want to take it on?

BEAU WILLIMON, “House of Cards”: Well, the subject of “House of Cards” is power. And there’s really no better place to go than Washington, D.C., if you want to dramatize power. That is center stage for power in America, so that is where we set our show.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jay Roach, what was your take? Why did you want to come to Washington — take on Washington?

JAY ROACH, Producer/Director: Yes, I think because I’m just worried about it. It — there’s so much dysfunction. And I think the audience is in the middle of a kind of perpetual anxiety dream about what goes on in Washington. So, I’m just fascinated by — you know, it seems like it should work better, but it often doesn’t.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But — so you really came to it thinking there was this dysfunction, and I’m going to, what, look at it or try to solve it or what?

JAY ROACH: Well, mostly ask questions about it, explore the reasons for it, a lot of it just for my own personal therapy, but hoping that other people might want to know more and just be tempted to just keep asking questions about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will come back to that.

Let me bring in Thomas Mallon.

You actually live here in Washington. So this in some sense is a local story for you.

THOMAS MALLON, author: Well, all history here is both local national.

And I think one of the things that has always attracted me to the city, writing about it, is that it provides a chance for ordinary people to get caught up in big, big dramas. And, in fact, a number of my books have been just about that, bystanders, in effect, who got swept into something, like the couple who went to the theater with the Lincolns on the night of the assassination.

And this novel of mine, “Watergate,” a lot of the people who are involved in the book are peripheral figures compared to the central ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Beau Willimon, that take is the peripheral figures. You are going right to the guts, right, the power struggle?

BEAU WILLIMON: Yes, the guts behind the scenes or really under the skin.

You know, I think Washington is filled with real human beings who have real wants and needs that are flawed, and sometimes in a terrifying way. And Francis Underwood is someone who is unapologetically self-interested. He wants power for power’s sake. It is an extreme version of Washington. I think most people in Washington go there to serve their country, but there are people that want power above all else.

And I think the question we ask is, if someone is actually getting something done, do the ends justify the means? It is an interesting question to ask right now, when Washington is paralyzed by gridlock.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you say it is an extreme version, though, did you look at — you looked carefully at what goes on now and then sort of took it to another step?

BEAU WILLIMON: Yes.

I mean, look, you know, you have all sorts of models throughout the history of America, whether it’s Lyndon Johnson, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, people who were masters of the political gamesmanship and also are willing to break the rules in order to properly lead.

And it’s a paradox that the people who are making the rules sometimes have to break them in order to move us forward. And, you know, we want our politicians to be perfect people, and yet at the same time we want them to lead our country, and that means sometimes playing outside the box. And it is an impossible position for any politician to be in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Jay Roach, how do you do that through — and you have done it with comedy. You have done it with drama. How do you fictionalize what you see, you said you see as a kind of dysfunction?

JAY ROACH: Well, what drew me to the two HBO films, “Recount” and “Game Change,” is that it wasn’t fiction. It almost seemed like it was. It would be hard to write sort of more Shakespearian or sort of classic drama, kind of bit of conflicts between people.

But I just wanted to be in those rooms to see a little bit of what Beau was talking about, that people could come to these decisions, given all of the forces at play, you know, have someone like Sarah Palin, for example, in “Game Change,” be chosen to be second in line for the presidency. It seemed like something you would want to figure out how that could happen.

In the case of “The Campaign,” it’s the whole other thing of just wanting to just sort of have some fun at the expense of the dysfunction. But — and the other thing I liked about both “Game Change” and “Recount” as stories, given that they were real-life stories, is at the center of them were people who were trying to do better, and I felt were capable of inspiring people to at least see them as what they were going through as a cautionary tale, so they could see how much is at stake, even though they were just sort of flawed individuals responsible for making those decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thomas Mallon, we keep — this series has been looking at this through the lens of hyper-partisanship. Do you see that lens? And what do you bring to it? Do you bring your own politics to it? Do you set that aside and try to figure out what is going on when you write?

THOMAS MALLON: Well, I mean, one’s politics are part of one even when one is writing.

But if I want to say anything about the state of civil society, I will write an essay. The responsibilities you feel as a novelist are literary ones, I think, not civic ones. And I think politicians are interesting to write about.

Of all parties, they are interesting. I think they are a lot blander and, alas, less interesting than they were a few generations ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, now than in the past?

THOMAS MALLON: Oh, they’re very cautious.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

THOMAS MALLON: Verbally, they have got a thousand…

JEFFREY BROWN: Don’t tell Beau Willimon and Jay Roach, because they’re…

(LAUGHTER)

THOMAS MALLON: Well, they have got a thousand iPhone cameras on them everyday. They — they are not these big brawling personalities that you found, say, in the era of Lyndon Johnson and before.

But they are still interesting. And I think that the worst form of naiveté can be extreme cynicism. If you think that nobody comes to Washington to do any good whatsoever, that is almost as bad as being starry-eyed and thinking that they are all here to advance democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — Beau Willimon, what about that word we just heard, responsibility? I wonder — to the extent that a lot of people will think about and come to see Washington through fictionalized dramas like yours, do you feel any special responsibility?

BEAU WILLIMON: The only responsibility, like a novelist, that I feel is telling a good story.

You know, it’s interesting the notion — or the axis of cynicism vs. optimism. I am not a cynical person. I don’t think “House of Cards” is at all cynical. I think Francis Underwood in his own mind is an optimist. But he has a world view that is different than a lot of ours. He thinks that ideology is a form of cowardice, that it makes your behavior intractable, and intractable, intransigent behavior prevents compromise.

Actually, more often than not, he looks for situations where everyone wins. He is trying to move things towards the middle. He’s trying to move people out of the quicksand of intransigence. That is an optimistic point of view. He is doing it for self-serving reasons, sure, but there’s plenty of people who — I mean, if we are really honest with ourselves, you know, we are self-serving a lot of the time.

So I don’t think that politicians are any different than the rest of us. They have their needs. They go after them. And sometimes they go after them ruthlessly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jay Roach, what is your answer to that question about the responsibility that you might feel in how you — how — I guess how close to the reality you get it?

JAY ROACH: Well, it’s different when you are doing something like “Game Change,” when you’re actually trying to make a somewhat historically-based film. It says it is a true story. The audience expects a true story.

And I think they can sense when you are faking it. So, as a storyteller, I feel like I have a responsibility to just sort of deliver on something that is as true as it can possibly be to just get it right. And I don’t feel necessarily responsible for inspiring people, but I certainly try to — I don’t know — get back to a little bit of what I remember having when I watched “All the President’s Men” or a film like that, or some of “The West Wing,” where you actually see all of the dysfunction and see a light shone on ridiculous behavior, petty behavior, but in there somewhere is something that makes you want to work a little harder, maybe inspires other people to work a little harder.

I think that is something that I personally like to strive for.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Washington on the screen and on the page.

Jay Roach, Beau Willimon, and Thomas Mallon, thank you, all three, very much.

THOMAS MALLON: Thank you.

JAY ROACH: Thank you.

BEAU WILLIMON: Thank you.