How we slid from Jed Bartlet to Frank Underwood

How did we slide from Jed Bartlet to Frank Underwood?

Be prepared. In the first three minutes of "House of Cards" Season 3, Frank Underwood will do something that will shock you, no matter how cynical and jaded you might think you are about political leaders.

That he is now president of the United States made it all the more shocking to me — although I thought I was pretty cynical and jaded about media and politics. And it is only prelude to something he does in Episode 4 that is likely to truly appall some of the more religious members of the viewing audience.

I didn't think Frank's change in status would make all that much difference in how I reacted to his bad behavior. But after seeing the first six episodes and being shocked to the point of sounding verbal exclamations that brought my wife from the next room asking if I was OK, I think his new status does matter in serious ways.

I believe it says something significant about media, image and the way we have come to think about our presidents today. It is one of the harshest depictions of the presidency in mainstream media during my lifetime, that's for sure.

Was it really just nine years ago that Aaron Sorkin's "West Wing" ended its run on NBC?

Frank's most outrageous and truly transgressive acts got me wondering about how far we had come from Josiah "Jed" Bartlet (Martin Sheen), the righteous and dutiful president with the Old-Testament-cum-New-England name in "The West Wing."

Season 3 of "Cards" drops at 3 a.m. Friday on Netflix, and as you watch, play this substitution game: Ask yourself if you could imagine Bartlet behaving the way Frank Underwood does. And then, ask yourself, as I did, whether it's the presidency, the media or we, the people, who have changed in the past nine years.

Bartlet's pop culture pedigree stretches back at least to Parson Weems' 1800 biography, "The Life of Washington," in which he writes of the boy who would be president saying he could not tell a lie about chopping down the cherry tree. While there have certainly been political attacks on presidents published during the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mainstream norm for presidential depictions has been mostly in the tradition of Weems.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the two presidents since "The West Wing" ended, have been two of the most openly criticized and even reviled presidents in my lifetime — and that includes a couple of real objects of widespread contempt in Lyndon Johnson (1963-1968) and Richard Nixon (1968-1974).

Johnson took a pounding in the media during and after the Vietnam War. The 1967 play "MacBird" mined some of the same Shakespearean energy of "Macbeth" that "House of Cards" does, suggesting Johnson was involved in the assassination of his predecessor, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But that was a satire that ran for about a year off-Broadway in the lower level of the Village Gate in Greenwich Village — not exactly mainstream the way Netflix and "House of Cards" are.

Oliver Stone's 1991 docudrama "JFK" was certainly mainstream, but Stone has consistently denied over the years that he was accusing Johnson of being involved in JFK's assassination — even though many saw the film as suggesting exactly that.

Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 under fierce pressure for his role in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in, has been vilified in various production of "Richard III" that emphasized similarities between the 37th president of the U.S. and the 15th-century British monarch as depicted by Shakespeare. But, again, this was as much a matter of interpretation as direct attack.

Besides, what's happening in Season 3 of "House of Cards" is not an attack on a specific president — it's more commentary or response to the low esteem in which the office has been held since the days of "West Wing."

In October 2008, the approval rating for George W. Bush dropped to 22 percent, according to Pew and Gallup polls. That's lower than Nixon, who hit 24 percent just before he resigned. Bush's rating was the lowest since Harry Truman in 1948.

Obama's approval ratings are better; his low is 41 percent in October 2013, according to Pew and Gallup. But there is level of disrespect in the way some talk about Obama and the presidency that I have never seen.

Representative of that attitude were the remarks former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made Wednesday at a dinner for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America," Giuliani said, according to Politico. "He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country."

Whatever the reasons for such remarks, whether political opposition and racism on the part of the speakers or poor performance in office by Obama, they are now considered acceptable in mainstream culture.

I believe "House of Cards" Season 3 eloquently speaks to that change in our attitudes toward the presidency.

Many Americans no longer have faith in the White House, and "House of Cards" winningly explores the angst and anger of what it feels like to live in that America.

At its best, popular culture symbolically articulates and examines our highest hopes and most frightening nightmares. As unemployment becomes a permanent condition for 10 million Americans and ISIS vows to bring its barbarism to the streets of New York, it is natural to wonder and perhaps worry a bit about our leader being up to the daunting challenges the country faces.

Season 3 of "House of Cards" plumbs that depth by imagining a truly mendacious character as our commander in chief. At one point, President Underwood tells us in direct address that one of the annoying demands of his new job involves having to fake certain actions to appear "more human" for the sake of his image.

"You have to be a little human when you're the president," he says contemptuously to the camera.

That's a pretty low bar. But even being a "little human" is too high a reach for Underwood, it seems.

I'll be there at 3 a.m. Friday to finish off the last seven hours of Season 3. Writer and showrunner Beau Willimon is breaking new ground with this characterization of the American presidency, and I want to see where he takes it. I have a feeling he's going to show us as much about ourselves as Underwood before the journey ends.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

If you watch

Season 3 of "House of Cards" drops on Netflix at 3 a.m. Friday.

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