Tag Archives: House of Cards

Why I like Madam Secretary

No, not that Madam Secretary. The other one. The TV show.

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Madam Secretary, which is in the middle of its third season, is about a highly capable former CIA analyst who gets pulled out of private life to become the Secretary of State. She has a few kids and a strong marriage with her husband, who is a theology professor and also an important character on the show, so the responsibilities and pressures of dealing with family and teenagers add to her job of dealing with the many diplomatic crises that arise in her job.

I’m aware that many conservatives have approached the show with a lot of skepticism (or not approached it at all, simply rejecting it) due to understandable suspicions that the show was intended as propaganda for the failed Hillary Clinton presidential race. In my opinion, while the show has liberal leanings, it’s not very good propaganda for Hillary herself, if it was intended as such. I suspect that the creators saw the backdrop of the Hillary campaign as an environment that would create more interest in their show.

About the only parallels between Clinton and Secretary Elizabeth McCord are that both are women and have blond hair. Secretary McCord is extremely competent, is relatively young for a political figure and quite good-looking, has a loving and stable marriage (though they must work through occasional conflicts) that is quite different from what we imagine the Clintons’ marriage to be, has kids in high school and college, is not politically ambitious and did not previously hold political office, and is highly honest and ethical. If there is supposed to be some kind of relationship between the two, the only kind I can imagine is a clear contrast.

So with that said, why do I like the show?

If you’re a political junkie looking for a good Washington-based political drama, what are you to do? You could try Veep, which as I understand it, is a comedy-drama with plenty of cynicism and snark. You could try Scandal, or the (short-lived) State of Affairs. These shows offer cynical, conspiratorial, and above all salacious views of the affairs of Washington D.C. Or you could double down on all three with House of Cards. Now I’m sure HoC is a well-acted, engaging show – perhaps one of the best on television, from what I’ve heard. And I’ve watched shows with quite a bit of objectionable content, and will probably continue doing so – I’ve watched five seasons of Homeland and one or two of The Americans. But I don’t want to watch too many of those, and from what I’ve seen in reviews and a little Wikipedia skimming, HoC might have little to nothing in the way of virtue – it’s all about the engrossing story, no matter how evil Frank Underwood and the other characters are.

The above shows have basically “cornered the market on snark” as this article in the Toronto Sun puts it. By contrast, Madam Secretary is merely edgy; it only dips its toe in the salacious waters, so to speak.

Conservatives may often find hints of conservatism in the snarkiness and cynicism about government and politicians, as in Veep or HoC. It can line up with conservative anti-government, anti-establishment impulses. We shouldn’t kid ourselves and think Hollywood liberals are producing an actual conservative show, however. (And I think it’s a little pathetic to find little hints of conservative principles in this or that show and proclaim that show to be “conservative”). This is a time of deep anti-institutional feeling across the political spectrum, so liberals also enjoy these shows; in fact, social liberalism is deeply anti-institutional, as they want to tear down old institutions and social mores in the name of progress. Now, as a conservative, I believe in limited government. But this is not the same as viewing all government (and all politicians) as evil (see Romans 13, for Christian readers). So I will suggest this: while an amount of cynicism and snark can reinforce a healthy skepticism of government, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the need for, and possibility of, leaders with integrity and ethics. Government is slow and inefficient, and there are lots of power-grabbers and toadies looking to advance their careers (and Madam Secretary certainly shows this). But there are also people like us: people with moral principles who are trying to do the right thing. You don’t have to be a liberal to think that the State Department, for instance, can be a force for good in the world. Like any branch of government, it carries potential for both good and evil.

Madam Secretary suggests that with a little more common sense, Washington could be better than it is now. It suggests that when faced with challenging issues, people in Washington should remember and apply their moral principles – and it suggests that it is possible for people to do that (instead of the black hole of evil and/or cluelessness that is Washington in other shows).

This is not to say that Secretary McCord is perfect. Even the best public officials have limited influence and don’t always do the right thing. And I think the show tries to get this right, as there are tough calls and tragic mistakes that the imperfect heroes face from time to time. The characters have to decide in every episode how to best exercise military power and apply diplomatic pressure, and in general use America’s influence for good in the world (although often, the chief of staff Russell Jackson is more interested in using it in a way that will aid the re-election of the President).

The show also shows the McCords struggling with the demands of work and their relationships with each other.

Madam Secretary isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a conservative show. But Hollywood is not conservative, and at this stage at least, no one in Hollywood is going to create a conservative political heroine – it’s just not a socially acceptable thing to do in Hollywood. So conservatives are going to disagree and roll their eyes at some of the conversations and decisions that get made in the moderate-to-liberal presidency. But often Elizabeth’s political leanings aren’t very clear, and in my opinion, they’re not especially alienating even when they are. The show also sometimes resolves conflicts too simplistically and occasionally can make McCord almost a diplomatic savior; but this impulse is generally restrained and these quibbles don’t stop me from enjoying and recommending the show.