by Pete Mazzaccaro
By now everyone’s familiar with Frank Underwood, the conniving congressman who is a central character in the Netflix show “House of Cards.” Underwood, a man modeled after Shakespeare’s MacBeth, spends every waking hour plotting how to retain power or gain more. Very little of his time is spent legislating, and when he has worked for or sponsored a bill, it has only been to further a purely political purpose.
The show is a pretty big hit. Most likely because it reflects the attitudes and expectations we all have for how Congress and our politicians in particular operate. We’re living in fairly cynical times. “House of Cards” plays up that cynicism.
A quick look around the political landscape tells us that such cynicism is not too far from the truth. It’s hard to find examples of politicians that have gone as far as Underwood has – he has at least two murders to his credit as of the second season – but we find news almost every day of our political figures breaking the law one way or the other, mostly just to keep their political power.
Take the story two weeks ago about State Sen. LeAnna Washington, who has been a legislator from Northwest Philadelphia for many years. Nine years ago she won a special election to fill the former state senate seat of now Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz.
Now she’s facing two charges of corruption for allegedly using her legislative office staff to raise money for her campaign, a practice that is simply illegal.
According to news reports, there’s very little nuance in the case against Washington. It includes recorded conversations in which she is confronted with the possibility that she might be breaking the law, and all the while she insists it’s what she’s always done.
In announcing the charges against Washington, State Atty. Gen. Kathleen Kane estimated that the cost to taxpayers of Washington’s actions exceeded $100,000.
Further stories last week implicated another group of state legislators from the Philadelphia area who accepted cash gifts and failed to report them. Kane, in these cases,decided against prosecution, making the determination that the case against the legislators and one judge lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute.
And all of that is just two weeks in the life of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Only the most naive among us reacts to any of these stories with shock or surprise. In fact, I remain unimpressed. As far as crimes go, the allegations against Washington and the politicians who accepted gifts are nowhere near as diabolical as those put into motion by Underwood. This is political corruption without imagination.
There’s a line Underwood uses in the beginning of season two. As he’s being sworn in as Vice President of the United States, he smiles and in an aside to the audience says, “One heartbeat away from the Presidency and not a single vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”
It’s a cynical but accurate comment, especially when so many of our elected officials are obviously preoccupied not with trying to make the country a better place but in raising money and keeping power for power’s sake.