Does “Veep,” the HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless Vice President of the U.S., have anything to tell us about contemporary politics? I guess it depends on how cynical you are, since the show presents a political culture in which back-stabbing, ambition, and hard-fought compromises are put solely to the service of image, window-dressing and trivia.
Last year in the middle of Season One, New York magazine political reporter Jonathan Chiat argued that the show “gets” Washington because it depicts a system in which nothing can be accomplished. “Rather than describing either the use or abuse of power,” he notes, “it is a Washington satire about powerlessness, which is both the source of its humor and the quality that makes it such a dead-on portrayal of Washington.”
This was not quite right in Season One and it definitely wasn’t true in Season Two, which ended on Sunday. “Veep” doesn’t portray a Washington where nothing can get done; rather, it’s a traditional workplace comedy in which a particular politician — Louis Dreyfus’ character, Vice President Selina Meyer — is undone by the unique frustrations of the vice presidency itself. The premise of the show seems to be that everyone else in Washington has more power and influence than poor Vice President Meyer, who can’t even win symbolic victories.
John Adams, the first vice president, famously noted that the vice presidency is “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” With no Constitutional powers other than to break tie votes in the Senate, the vice president is completely dependent on the president for any kind of real responsibility.
In recent years, presidents have delegated significant powers to the vice president. You’d have to go back to LBJ’s number two, Hubert Humphrey, to find a veep who was so out of the loop. Even Dan Quayle had more influence than the Salina Meyer of Season One, who was reduced to asking her assistant almost every episode if the president called. (I assume that by now someone has told the show’s writers that the president of the United States doesn’t really leave messages, because this trope didn’t appear in Season Two.)
In the Season Two Salina Meyers does have more responsibility although not much more power. She becomes the public face of a few high-profile initiatives (the coordinator of a rescue of American students, the chief negotiator of the budget talks, etc.) but she’s not the one calling the shots. Indeed, she is out of the loop for the key decisions and doesn’t even know that a CIA agent had been in the group of abducted students.
Since this is a satire, we are not supposed to wonder why the vice president doesn’t go to Cabinet meetings and rarely talks to the President, how she can get away with swearing so colorfully, or why she has such a small, lightweight staff. After all, this is a comedy, not a documentary, right?
It has been surprising to see how far from reality “Veep” really given that Louis-Dreyfus made a big point about how she had talked to several former vice presidents about the job. I wonder how Al Gore and the others feel about those conversations now that they see the vice president depicted as a relative nonentity reduced to taking orders from a doofus West Wing liaison. It’s just not credible that a modern vice president would be so inconsequential, so invisible to the media or so far removed from policy debates.
I don’t want to imply that the show isn’t funny, because it’s hilarious. No one is better at exasperation and frustration than Louis-Dreyfus, and her staff’s creatively malicious internal vituperation and blame-gaming is unsurpassed in any workplace comedy. In short, what we have here is an old-fashioned farce that happens to be set in the Old Executive Office Building.
The thing about “Veep” is that even though it’s far far from the reality of the real Vice President’s job, it’s actually dead-on about Washington culture once you get outside the Presidential and Vice Presidential offices. If you took this entire series and transported it to Capitol Hill, you would practically have a reality show.
Early in my career I worked in Washington, D.C. and none of the jobs I had in the executive branch (including the White House and a couple of cabinet departments) were remotely like “Veep.” At all! None of those shenanigans would have been tolerated for a second. But I was also a press secretary for a U.S. congressman, and I have flashbacks to that job whenever I watch “Veep.” Congressional offices actually do have small, marginally competent staffs who are intensely focused on process and trying desperately to get attention for the boss. This leads to the kind of claustrophobic, frenzied, out-of-control atmosphere portrayed on “Veep.”
My congressman was not an egomaniac or blamer like Salina Meyer, but he was impulsive and prone to crazy “Veep”-like stunts. Once, I was instructed to inform a group of potentially irritating constituents that he wasn’t in; when went back into the office to give him the “mission accomplished” news, I discovered him hiding on his hands and knees behind his desk, in case the group didn’t believe me and pushed their way in. Let me tell you, it’s unnerving to see your boss playing hide and seek in a Congressional office.
But I will say this for the man. Unlike Selina Meyer, he had strongly held and frequently expressed policy ideas. He was in office to get something done; not to set up “clean jobs” taskforces. And even though he was a junior member of the minority party, he managed to attach an amendment to the defense bill requiring colleges to ensure that any student getting aid had registered for the draft. Whether you like that law or not, that’s the real Washington, not the Washington of “Veep.”
Note: this is an updated version of a column that appeared previously in MediaPost.