Why you should care
Because this is a time, it seems, when life in politics is increasingly imitating art.
If you’re like me, and you’ve already binged through every season of House of Cards, then you may have wondered at some point: How true to reality are those dramatic briefings with President Frank Underwood? “They’re fairly realistic,” says John McLaughlin, who, as the former deputy director and acting director of the CIA, has briefed no fewer than four presidents — from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush. “A real briefing takes place in the basement of the White House, but you’re seeing only a tensely dramatic snippet of the meeting, because if you saw the whole thing it would be like watching paint dry.”
McLaughlin, a fellow TV junkie when it comes to political thrillers, gets glued to the screen whenever his favorites come on. Yes, there’s House of Cards, but also The Americans, Homeland and Veep. Only, unlike many of us, he has far deeper insight into just how real those latest plot twists and love stories really are.
OZY: What attracts you to these shows?
John McLaughlin: People in Washington like me, who’ve worked here for many years, tend to be drawn to these shows. They’re all far fetched, of course. But in each of them there is an element that we recognize.
There’s an aspect to both Frank and Claire that you often see in Washington, usually with less meanness than they display. Just this coldly calculated ambition.
OZY: The latest season of House of Cards features Kevin Spacey’s character creating a culture of fear in order to dominate the national political conversation. How would you handle a presidency like that if you were still at the CIA?
J.M.: That’s an element of the show that’s quite over the top. Several of us who’ve been in policy and intelligence decisions were discussing this. Yep, some of that happens, but for the most part you have colleagues who are working fairly cooperatively and trying to help each other.
Are there people who are a little rogue and try to work with fear and bullying? Yeah, but they get a bad reputation real fast. And people don’t want to work for them, and their effectiveness declines really quickly. I know a few people who were difficult to work with, but generally regarded as quite brilliant and also had loyalty from their subordinates — but no one quite as unidimensionally dedicated to fear as a tactic as Frank Underwood.
OZY: How representative are the Underwoods when it comes to their embodiment of political ambition within D.C. today?
J.M.: There’s an aspect to both Frank and Claire that you often see in Washington, usually with less meanness than they display. Just this coldly calculated ambition. As Bob Gates once said: Washington is the only town where you see someone walking down lovers’ lane, holding their own hand. With House of Cards, I tell my students not to let it make them too cynical about Washington. Good people can accomplish great things in Washington, but you do have to work hard to overcome the counterproductive effects of competitive ambition everywhere.
OZY: Strong characters who embody that kind of ambition also got you hooked onto Veep very quickly.
J.M.: They’re all way over-the-top representations of people you know, but there are two characters in particular who are congressional aides: Amy and Dan. Amy has no personal life whatsoever; she’s ambitious, worried and tense juggling so many balls. Dan is representative of the kind of individual you see from time to time whose loyalty can change on a dime. If he’s working for someone and that ship springs a leak, he’s instantly looking for a new ship, even as he tries to keep the first boss assured that he’s dedicated. It’s fairly rare behavior, but instantly noticeable when it occurs.
People have asked me: Are you Saul? No. As I think of my life and times there, I may be one-half Saul.
OZY: The CIA is your wheelhouse, which is also where Homeland is largely set. What rings true about the main character, Carrie Mathison?
J.M.: I recognize the absolute intensity of Carrie. I knew many people who worked on terrorism who were equally intense without the bipolar piece. They would get their teeth into the case, and they would pursue it to the end, no matter what. In many cases, people working against ISIS today are the same people who worked on al-Qaida days after 9/11. They’ve taken this on as a personal mission.
OZY: When it came to mentoring those agents, how similar were you to Saul Berenson?
J.M.: I try not to put myself in the spotlight a lot, but people have asked me: Are you Saul? No. As I think of my life and times there, I may be one-half Saul. But no one could ever be Saul, really, because he’s a guy who literally never stops.
Saul represents the struggle that dedicated intelligence officers often have with work-life balance. He’s the exaggeration of the person who’s so driven that his work comes before everything. When I was a supervisor at the CIA, I did try to remind people to have personal lives. But we had a phrase: You never take your pack off — meaning backpack, and that you’re always thinking about the job. It implies you’re on a long march, and you never put it down.
OZY: When have you rolled your eyes in disbelief at Homeland?
J.M.: When Peter Quinn or another agent takes someone out because there’s a program to take them off. At other times, it’s when there’s a plot twist about a mole in your midst — an officer who has turned out to be a traitor or a spy. That said, we have discovered them in different agencies: Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Jim Nicholson. But that doesn’t mean you’re paranoid about your colleagues, even though you’re always aware foreign services are trying to penetrate your intelligence service. That’s why there’s such a focus on counterintelligence.
OZY: That focus is also central to The Americans. And what I love about it is the slow build of relationships to get at key contacts or information.
J.M.: Once again, all of the murder and mayhem is over the top, but the realistic part is the old Russian tactic of training people who can, with varying degrees of success, blend into a society. The latest public example, now declassified, is the case of the illegal 10 in 2010. Some of the people were not as good as The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — they didn’t blend in quite as well — but some of them did. The one who got the attention was Anna Chapman.
OZY: At one point in the show, there’s a romantic story line that develops between FBI agent Stan Beeman and KGB officer Nina Sergeevna. How often have relationships like that actually formed?
J.M.: Very rarely. That’s the ultimate sin. It’s conceivable, but it’s beaten into people that you don’t do that. That’s why you have all of these internal monitoring steps like periodic investigations and polygraph tests. But it’s a delicate relationship: On the one hand, you’re trying to protect the source and maybe even admiring the source, often because they’re in it for ideological reasons. But there are lines you just don’t cross.
OZY: Let’s take you out into the field. Compared to Philip, the KGB agent, how good of a spy would you make?
J.M.: If I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t be doing half the stuff he does — it’s too unrealistic. It really is. There’s, like, a faint echo of what you experienced in all of this.