And the Winner Is ... NOT Washington, as Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty Earn Oscar Nods

National Journal

When one of your top tourist attractions is less popular than lice, can your public-relations problem get any worse? For Washington, it just did.

Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty, three films honored with Best Picture Oscar nominations, lionize their Washington-anchored protagonists as crafty, competent, and virtually incorruptible. Good luck living up to those virtues, Mr. President.

And what about Congress? Less than 10 percent of the public approves of the legislative branch. According to a Public Policy Polling survey, most Americans find lice and colonoscopies more appealing than Capitol Hill.

Hollywood has a history of raising expectations beyond Washington's reach, of appealing to the very-American desire to mythologize political leaders, particularly the president. Movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 to Dave in 1993 portray Washington leaders as the ultimate Everymen — decent people just like you and me, only thrust onto greatness.

Even films about the uglier side of politics (All the President's Men comes to mind) normally end with justice done.

And so it is with these three.

While Lincoln offers an authentic portrayal of the deceit, bullying,  and bribery that the Great Emancipator condoned in service of his noble goal, the film is as much a part of the American myth-making machine as the Disney-inspired Lincoln library in Springfield, Ill. Steven Spielberg's president speaks from inside a candle flame, for heaven's sake, and is "clothed in immense power."

In Argo, a madcap plot to free Americans from Iran in 1980 makes heroes of diplomats and bureaucrats while giving the CIA's image a needed polish.

Zero Dark Thirty deals directly, if not accurately, with the controversy around torture. But in the end, the bad guy dies.

My colleague, Matt Cooper, writes about the lesson each film offers for modern Washington. When I read his story, I couldn't help thinking that lice and colonoscopies just got a bump in the polls.