Actor Kevin Spacey and Ron Klain (CAS ’83), former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, roused a packed Gaston Hall on Monday evening in a discussion about ethics in politics.
Most of the event, in which Klain, currently an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, asked Spacey questions about his career and personal views, centered on the ethical commentary in Spacey’s TV show “House of Cards.” The Netflix series, which stars Spacey, is the work for which he is most famous.
Spacey amused the audience by appearing in a Georgetown crewneck sweater, cursing unsparingly and demanding a Starbucks coffee from an aide in the middle of the event, alluding to his pompous “House of Cards” character, Frank Underwood. He said that the show, which depicts American politics as ruthless and ethically shady, carries special relevance at a time when the United States is enduring what he called “one of the most paralyzed governments” in years.
“There are … politicians who were viewed as ruthless, very difficult, in your face and [who] would do dirty, dirty nasty things, who are being re-examined. Lyndon B. Johnson is being reexamined as a politician. A lot of people thought he was the toughest son of a b – – – – in the world, but he got three civil rights bills passed,” Spacey said.
Spacey drew on his experience filming “Recount,” a 2008 political drama in which he played Klain, to affirm that the macabre portrayal of American politics in “House of Cards” is accurate.
“The s – – – that went down in that experience was some of the most extraordinary mind-boggling manipulation. I watch what’s going on in Washington and I think to myself, ‘our scripts aren’t that f – – – – ing crazy,’” Spacey said.
To provide an example, Spacey argued that the ambiguity surrounding the validity of promises in the series is reflective of their impotence in today’s political climate.
“We’ve just been through a situation that began, or was at least spearheaded by, a promise that was made and couldn’t be delivered on: Boehner saying it was, ‘Yes, we have a deal, Oh, I can’t deliver on the deal, Oh, let’s shut down the government.’ We do seem to be existing in a time where that is happening. Welcome to the world of human contradiction,” he said.
Despite these grim realities, Spacey reminded the audience that effective public service has the potential to make seismic progress.
“I believe in public service, and I think it’s an extraordinary thing when people decide they want to become involved in their communities or state or country … and help those who are in a more difficult situation. A lot of [politics] turns people off … but there are a lot of incredible things that can be done,” he said.
Klain drew on his lengthy career in government to argue that ethics still have a prominent place in U.S. politics.
“I understand why there are political figures who disappoint and disenchant us,” Klain said, “But I believe people on both sides are in politics for the right reasons and do things in an ethical way every day.”
Spacey agreed, suggesting that to deem a politician either unethical or ethical is too simplistic.
“Life is not black and white, and sometimes it is very easy for us to say, ‘This is bad,’ and, ‘This is good,’ whereas we all generally live in a world that’s a little more gray. It’s the gray that’s interesting — where we find common ground,” he said.
The event’s lengthy question-and-answer period allowed the audience to ask Spacey and Klain about modern politics and aspects of their careers. Notably, Spacey lamented the way in which the 1980s decision of media organizations to prioritize profitability has compromised the integrity of modern news outlets.
“When you make it have to be profitable, it can no longer be news. When it competes against entertainment, it’s entertainment,” he said. “People tune into a channel to hear their own opinions voiced back to them again and again.”
In counterpoint, Klain argued that the rise of social media has played a pivotal role in democratizing news. He recounted that once the “Twittersphere” affirmed that President Obama performed poorly in the 2012 presidential debate in Denver, Obama’s team of “news spinners” were left powerless to influence popular opinion.
“People in your generation have the power to shape the news,” he told the audience, earning loud applause.
The most thunderous applause, however, was in response to a student’s question to Spacey about the likelihood of a female president being elected in coming races.
“If Congress isn’t ready, they better f – – – ing get ready,” Spacey said.