The Very Real History Behind the Crazy Politics of 'House of Cards'

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The Netflix series may not be a totally accurate representation of Washington, but a decent number of its more outlandish moments are uncomfortably similar to real life.

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Netflix

Netflix's new political drama House of Cards may be drawing a respectable viewership and strong reviews, but its grandiose vision of Washington, D.C., intrigue is also drawing flack for being implausible. After all, the capital may be scandal-ridden and venal, but not this scandal-ridden and venal. Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg deems it "half-authentic," National Journal's Josh Kraushaar says it gets congressional power dynamics all wrong, and in an Atlantic article Ari Melber praises the show's spirit but says its details wouldn't stand up to fact checking.

All of which may be correct. But political junkies watching the show will likely experience a shock of recognition as often as they'll throw their hands up in frustration. Head writer Beau Willimon has spent a career in politics, and as a result even the show's most outlandish moments have some sort of historical precedent. Below, I've collected instances—some more obvious than others—where House of Cards' fiction resembles fact.

Spoilers ahead.

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Here's President John F. Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963. House of Cards President Garrett Walker is shown in an almost identical scene, signing an education bill. Both are handing out the pens to their right, but direct your attention to the very back of the crowd of woman and children, respectively, where each president's second in command stands.

Fictional Vice President Jim Matthews has much in common with the only visible man behind Kennedy: Lyndon B. Johnson. Like Matthews, the 37th VP found he was utterly powerless after the election, and his attempts to better position himself led to humiliation. While Matthews complains to Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) that he did not receive a pen from the signing, Johnson was smarting after Kennedy refused his request to take the workspace next to the Oval office.

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When young journalist Zoe Barnes receives a taunting email from one of her colleagues at the Herald, she uses the attached photograph like it was a calling card from Underwood himself. The photo of the Congressman craning his neck to appreciate the backside of the ever-enterprising Barnes bears a striking resemblance to this image of President Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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"Everything is about sex, except sex," says Congressman Underwood. "Sex is about power." While that's certainly the case for the coupling of Barnes and Underwood, no examples of conflict-of-interest-ridden reporter/congressperson trysts readily come to mind. The recent David Petraeus scandal, however, comes close enough. General Petraeus, who was the director of the CIA before resigning, wasn't a politician per se, but he did act like one—courting the press and arguably promoting himself as much as his policies. It is acceptably cynical, then, to assume his extramarital affair with Paula Broadwell, the author of his biography, All In: The Education of General Petraeus, proved mutually beneficial, at least for a while.

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Peter Russo is one of the most compelling characters in House of Cards, charming but dogged by a weakness for alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes. Among his less shocking but more commonplace indiscretions is his affair with a staff member. There are so many real-life, dramatic examples to choose from, but the now-infamous video above is worth revisiting. It features former Congressman Mark Souder (R-IN), a staunch advocate of family values, extolling the virtues of abstinence before he resigned. Had he stayed on, an embarrassing ethics investigation would have exposed his affair with married female staffer Tracy Meadows Jackson, the very woman interviewing him in the video.

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After a night of debauchery with a prostitute—arranged by none other than Congressman Underwood—a still-drunk Russo does a career-ending phone interview. (Corey Stoll, the actor who plays Russo, has the inebriated act down: Readers may or may not recognize him as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris.) Underwood's chief of staff is there to ensure the interview takes place, but would a politician appear drunk in public by his own volition? In 1892, Georgia Congressman Thomas Watson took aim at the moral rectitude displayed in the House of Representatives, where "drunken members have reeled about the aisles—a disgrace to the Republic." In The People's Party Campaign Book, he recounted the many instances in which "Drunken speakers have debated grave issues on the Floor and in the midst of maudlin rumblings have been heard to ask, 'Mr. Speaker, where was I at?'"

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"When has your help ever helped me?" asks Russo as Underwood drives him home, perhaps solidifying his sad fate. Shortly after we were introduced to Underwood, he killed a dog who had been hit by a car. Now we see him smother another being in pain, this time making it look like a suicide.

While there's no evidence of someone faking a politician's suicide, national leaders have in fact killed themselves. Russo's historical predecessor may have been George Washington Adams, the eldest son of John Quincy Adams. A known womanizer and alcoholic by the time he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1826, he was often described as "gloomy" and likely suffered from depression. Historians believe that while travelling on a steamboat from Boston to New York City, where his disappointed father awaited his arrival, Adams committed suicide by drowning.

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The Peachoid is real, and it is actually located in Gaffney, South Carolina. In the midst of heated negotiations with teachers' unions, Underwood must leave Washington when a teenage girl in his own district dies while texting about the suggestive illuminated water tower. While the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that kids between the ages of 12 and 17 text a median of 60 times a day, there has been no such incident involving the four-story, 150 foot tall Peachoid.

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The teacher's union proves to be a more formidable enemy than Underwood had anticipated, and while it is nice to see the congressman struggle through his treachery, would Democrats really be so aggressive against their own constituency during negotiations? After Mayor Rahm Emanuel defied the Chicago Teachers Union last September, they launched the city's first teachers strike in 25 years. Just as the teachers turned on fictional union head Marty Spinella, teachers who once supported the Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis are now vowing to run against her.

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Towards the end of the season, Underwood visits his military college in South Carolina, the Sentinal, for the unveiling of the library the lobbying group SanCorp has paid for in the congressman's name. The Sentinel is a thinly veiled reimagining of the Citadel, the military college in South Carolina. While the library on campus is named in honor of lifelong benefactors, the late Charles E. Daniel and R. Hugh Daniel, a total of 12 alumni went on to become congressmen, seven of whom would, like Underwood, represent the state of South Carolina.

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After Underwood convinces the unhappy vice president to run for reelection in his home state, the congressman is conveniently tasked with heading up the search for Matthew's replacement—the very office he hopes to fill on his way to the presidency. What is the likelihood that the head of such a search would end up being named vice president? In early 2000, Dick Cheney led Governor George W. Bush's vice-presidential search committee. Bush considered Cheney's findings, but did not choose any of the people he vetted, instead asking the Halliburton CEO to join him on the Republican ticket.

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Alexis Coe is a writer in San Francisco and a columnist for SF Weekly.

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