On House of Cards It's Washington's Fault. In Real Life It's Ours.

You know what’s wrong with the new Dallas-based storyline in House of Cards,  the Netflix White House soap opera? The same thing that’s wrong with the country.

The screenplay assumes that wickedness, cynicism and self-serving hypocrisy flow from the center outward. It’s the whole “fed-up” paradigm now, left and right. Supposedly all the wickedness comes from D.C. and Wall Street. We’re just pawns.

I watch this show, and I’m supposed to believe we sit out here in Dallas or some other boondocks, a bunch of unblinking virgins with smiles upturned and hands folded prayerfully. All of a sudden out of nowhere these uber-smart cynical sons of bitches show up in a big caravan of black SUVs and start talking us into naughtiness.

Please. I don’t know much about Wall Street, but I’ve been covering the relationship between Dallas and D.C. for about 100 years. I know this sounds like some kind of very odd local pride, but it’s the truth: We can match Washington wickedness for wickedness any old day.

Take House of Cards, of which, by the way, I am a fan because I like fantasy. Claire Underwood, the first lady, comes to Dallas to talk to a deep-tenured member of Congress, based on our own Eddie Bernice Johnson (Democrat, 30th ).  Underwood wants her to give up her House seat so Underwood can have it.

And if you don’t mind, let’s not get off into bad accents, sets that look like Baltimore or basic political absurdities like a rich white lady from a gold-coast Dallas background even imagining she could run for office in a poor black district. If you want verisimilitude, watch a documentary.

But let’s do discuss this underlying assumption about moral responsibility and centrism, and let’s do talk about the real Eddie.

In the show, the Eddie Bernice Johnson character is named Doris Jones, played by Cicely Tyson. Congresswoman Jones has three sweet but simple goals in life – to pass her congressional seat on to her daughter, to establish a breast cancer clinic in her district run by Planned Parenthood and to honor and foster the pride that her constituents take in being represented by one of their own.

The real Eddie? Sure, sure, sure. Fine. I am willing, as the lawyers say, to stipulate to all of that. Could be, should be for the real Eddie. I don’t even want to talk about Eddie’s 25 percent stake in two concessions at the federally regulated Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport or her habit of awarding college scholarships to the children of officials at that airport whose duty is to oversee minority-owned concessions.
Because you know why? Nobody’s perfect. That’s all chump change. I want to talk about the basic flow of power one way or the other, from us to them or from them to us.

I’m sure you remember Hurricane Katrina, but just in case — August 29, 2005, 2,000 people dead, 34,000 rescued in New Orleans alone, $100 billion in damage over 90,000 square miles.

At that time Congresswoman Johnson chaired the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Faced with mounting evidence that federally supported flood control levees had failed in New Orleans, Johnson did the right thing. She pushed for a national review of levee safety all across America.


The technical survey of federal levees found 150 seriously flawed levee systems in the United States. The big oops for Johnson was a finding that the Trinity River levee system through Dallas and right through Johnson’s congressional district was no damn good. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the levees in Johnson’s district “unacceptable.”

“Unacceptable” may sound like something a father tells his 13-year-old daughter about her skirt. But if you dug deeper into the maddeningly mild language of the Corps report, “unacceptable” really meant that the levees in Dallas were inadequate to meet even the minimum federal flood safety requirement

Even deeper in Corps of Engineers documents was their conclusion that the toll from the New Orleans flood – waters that rose in neighborhoods but spared downtown New Orleans – might be far out-stripped in casualties and property damage in a Trinity River flood, which would be a wall of water aimed at the heart of downtown Dallas.

So what happened next? Did those D.C. jackals talk Dallas into lying down for this “unacceptable” peril to life, limb and property? Did Claire Underwood, that hard-eyed, stiff-walking, snotty First Lady from House of Cards come down here and pull the wool over innocent little eyeballs?

Hah! It is good to laugh. No, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. That Corps of Engineers finding that our levee system was unacceptably unsafe flew straight in the face of a big highway-building project along the levees that was heavily favored by the city’s Old Guard, many of whom had been checkbook-backers of Johnson from the earliest days of her political career (hence, the airport concessions), and by the city’s only daily newspaper, which is owned by the Old Guard.

The city of Dallas joined a consortium of cities around the country that were having similar “risk” problems with their levee systems. Together they used their combined congressional heft, of which Johnson was a key element, to jawbone the Corps of Engineers into redefining the word “risk.”

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “hazard, danger, exposure to mischance or peril.” The Corps of Engineers, threatened with having its budget cut off at the waist, redefined flood risk to include the existence of warning and evacuation systems, which, in Oxford English terms, might mean, “hazard, danger, exposure to mischance or peril unless you get lucky.”

And guess how that worked out for the levees protecting residents of Congresswoman Johnson’s district? The Corps of Engineers announced that under the new definition the Trinity River levees in Dallas, previously ruled unsafe at the level of a so-called 100-year flood, now could be deemed safe at the level of a 100,000-year flood but also possibly even at the level of a 400,000-year flood.

So, 100,000 years, give or take 300,000 years. Wow. That’s some levee, considering that only 30,000 years ago Cro-Magnon man was just beginning to move from the Near East into Europe. Imagine some Star Wars bar scene on an asteroid in another galaxy 300,000 years from now: A group of Ewoks, Coruscani Ogres and Derkolos are knocking back ice-cold brewskis, planning a vacation trip together to tour the Amazing Levees of Dallas, the oldest built structures in the entire universe of universes.

In other words, it’s a kind of in-your-face federal bureaucratic middle finger. It’s the Corps of Engineers saying, “Fine, Congresswoman Johnson. Sure. Come up here to D.C. and threaten our institutional existence, which dates from the Battle of Bunker Hill, because we tried to protect your constituents from disaster. You want to keep the levee system you’ve got? Here are the keys to it. Drive safely.”

By the way, Johnson later joined U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, in using a last-minute rider on a national defense spending bill and other legislative sleight-of-hand to entirely exempt the Trinity River from important provisions of federal law protecting wildlife, wetlands, public parks and historical structures, some or all of which might have interfered with the highway project the Dallas establishment had been seeking for 20 years.

I’m not asking the screenwriters for House of Cards to work all of this in. I’m not sure I would even watch that show. This isn’t about the show. It’s about us.

It is now absolute dogma in New Orleans that the wicked Corps of Engineers went down there in the decades before Katrina and talked the people of New Orleans into building a bunch of cheap, no-good, flimsy levees that didn’t do squat to protect New Orleans when Katrina hit. Four years ago, John M. Barry — the author of Rising Tide, the definitive work on the history of Mississippi flooding — pretty much bit my head off in a phone call when I even attempted to ask if local officials in New Orleans might have borne some responsibility for the cheap levees that failed.

No matter that the cheaper levees saved New Orleans a ton of money and helped keep real estate taxes low. Not relevant that the cheap levees that ultimately failed along the Industrial Canal had helped developers sell a ton of houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.

No, that was all innocence and good intentions on New Orleans’ part. Only the federal government was wicked, coming down there and seducing those poor developers into saving all that money on cheap levees and then making tons more money selling cheap houses in a floodplain where hundreds died in 2005.

Consider this. It’s hard to imagine a government structure or arrangement that would deliver more self-determination, autonomy, basic liberty or control over one’s personal destiny than ours does. It’s not perfect. Self-determination is not a guarantee that you will become handsome, rich and a lead actor on House of Cards.

But it does mean that the center works for us out here in the periphery. We own it. We can make it do what we want. We’re not the hapless hicks in House of Cards. Blaming the center for our own mistakes and misdeeds is like a drunk blaming the bartender for making him an alcoholic. At some point we need to turn off the damn TV and look in the mirror for a change.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze