Veep and political reality

I have been enjoying the comedy series Veep starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss that I reviewed earlier. It is one of the many TV shows and films that purport to show what life is like in the executive branch of government, like The West Wing or House of Cards. This naturally raises the question of which program most accurately captures what life is like in that world.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama, has lived in that world and says that Veep, probably the most cynical and superficial of the lot, most closely resembles real life.

Veep is the most authentic because it understands the three most important things about life in Washington: the humanity, the banality, and the absurdity. On its face it’s just another workplace comedy — the White House as Dunder Mifflin — but it dissects D.C. with a finely honed satirical scalpel. The characters stand out for their raw humanity. Painfully ambitious staffers like Dan and Jonah, the shallow members of Congress being courted to vote for (and against) the Families First bill, and the cynical and starstruck reporters questioning Press Secretary Mike McLintock all ring true to anyone who has spent time in Washington.

Veep also nails the rhythms of Washington life: Moments of great excitement — like President Meyer’s Middle East peace deal — punctuate days and weeks of important but mundane work that keeps the government running.

Lastly, and most importantly, Veep gets the absurdity of our current politics exactly right. In last Sunday’s episode, we heard the White House chief of staff respond incredulously to a member of Congress, “You make it sound as if there’s a correlation between what should happen and what actually happens.” That’s our discourse in 2015 in a nutshell. In a time of great challenge, our politics is too often pulled by some sort of tractor beam to the realm of the absurd. The episode in which the Meyer administration becomes embroiled in a political firestorm because they removed the only painting by a Native American from the White House seems ridiculous on its face. It isn’t. The Obama White House has spent much of the last six years being attacked for removing a bust of Winston Churchill — yes, a statue of a world leader from another country. President George W. Bush’s White House had to answer questions about whether the president was wearing a secret transmitter to help him in a debate. And let’s never forget the time when, in the middle of a discussion about the unrest in Iraq and Syria, Washington decided to focus on President Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit. All of these could have been Veep plotlines. Sadly, they are not. Shining a light on this makes for great comedy, but it is also a great public service.

It is interesting that Veep’s creator and showrunner Armando Ianucci is not an American but from the UK, showing how it sometimes takes a foreigner to get over the star-struck attitudes towards the presidency that Americans tend to have. Iannucci is also a master satirist and is the creator of the excellent British political satire The Thick of It and the film In the Loop.


  1. says

    Veep is brilliant but -- as someone who has been in the white house bubble -- it’s incredibly bitter. I don’t find it funny at all. It’s more like a documentary.

    I watched some with a friend and kept screaming “that is SO MUCH HOW IT IS”
    Yes, you need to know how false and manipulated and manipulative it is.

    Good show. Not funny if you realize the joke is on us.

  2. lorn says

    There is an old saying: ‘Stress makes you stupid”. As I understand it it has its origin in the military where it was noticed that people who were cold, exhausted, and in fear of their lives would get confused and distracted by trivial things, meaningless details, and parochial squabbles even as the battle raged around them.

    There is a tendency to imagine that the people in boardrooms of major corporations, the heads of government and people making life and death decisions steep themselves in lofty thoughts and eschew back-biting trivialities. That is what we want from people making world shaking choices. From what I’ve seen, when the stress levels climb it is high school all over again.

    An example I’m familiar with was the failed hostage rescue attempt under Carter. One of the biggest problems was that all the branches (army, navy,marine corp, air force) all demanded to be equally involved. So you had air crews flying aircraft that they had little familiarity with, a team made up of people who had never worked together before. It can’t be overestimated how important familiarity is in special operations.

    As it was the cobbled together team using unfamiliar borrowed equipment and operating with unfamiliar ground crews ran into trouble from the start and an accident on the ground moving the aircraft, exactly the sort of accident you would expect from people unaccustomed to each other and the aircraft, doomed the mission.

    Of course, the bitchy parochial infighting with each branch making unreasonable demands, and its role in the failure was ignored and Carter was left taking the blame. Carter loses the election in large part because of the high-school politics and we get Reagan.

    The good news is that as appalling as it may be to know that every important position is occupied by people made stupid and petty by stress it must be remembered that every other nation, state and corporate office faces the same problem. We should be thankful that it all works as well as it does.

    It also suggests that if we want people on high to make good decisions we try to make their positions less stressful.

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