It was Karl Marx, borrowing a line from Hegel, who observed that if history repeats, it does so first as tragedy, then as farce.
In my political experience, Marx got it backwards. Politics, too, repeats—but first as farce, then as tragedy.
I’ve been ruminating on this since we saw The Death of Stalin, a film written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the Scots-born show-runner for the popular UK political satire series, “The Thick of It,” and creator of its American counterpart, the HBO Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy series, “Veep.”
Iannucci’s source material is a French graphic novel, and Stalin takes some liberties with the facts (characters become caricatures, timelines are simplified and compressed), but despite the slapstick and pitch-black humor, gets the overarching themes right. Writing in The New Yorker, Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen called it “perhaps the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.”
One critic aptly noted (paraphrasing now) that it reduced politics to its essentials: vanity, anxiety, ambition and fear. It was so good—alternately hilarious and appalling—that I decided to go back and check out Iannucci’s earlier work, so I started with “Veep.”
I was mildly astonished to discover that virtually every character in the show had some counterpart in my professional experience. Some I worked for or with, others I’d known or seen. The hapless press secretary, the neurotic chief of staff, the jaded veteran, the ambitious young hotshot, the groveling body man, the imperious gate-keeper secretary. Moreover, the personalities are such universal archetypes that the series’ British writers transposed them to America without even skipping a beat.
What “Veep” and Stalin depict so well is the fundamental absurdity and wasted energy that so much of political theatre entails—the scheming, jockeying, hypocrisy, avarice, cowardice, and naked opportunism. Yes, there’s also to be found honesty, idealism, intellectual seriousness, and genuine courage. Unfortunately, those are too often in short supply, and are rarely the qualities that carry the day.
Make no mistake: the disagreements and rivalries may be real and substantive, representing deeply held ideological and philosophical viewpoints, pressed by determined advocates for competing constituencies with money, power, and influence, and major personal, political, and financial stakes in the outcome.
When I was doing press for local elected officials, people who knew that I worked in politics sometimes reacted with a barely disguised mix of dread and contempt. So, I would remind them that politics was really nothing more than human nature writ large—only instead of our random daily interactions, it’s a series of organized rituals, a pageant of petty but familiar human foibles, emotional conflicts, and power plays, enacted on a grand stage, in full public view.
While that had the virtue of being true, it wasn’t quite complete.
To von Clausewitz, the Prussian general, “War is the continuation of politics by other means;” Churchill, an Army officer before he became Britain’s foremost statesman, declared that, “In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” In short, politics is war, and in wartime, you have to lie. Q.E.D., lying in politics is not only necessary, it’s a virtue.
And that’s one of the things “Veep” in particular depicts so well: almost every situation, no matter how seemingly straightforward, reveals hidden layers of complexity and conflict, and the most innocent gesture—introducing a child health program, killing off a wasteful weapons project even the Pentagon no longer wants, or just removing an unattractive White House painting—can be fraught with peril. The paramount rule, however, is that nothing is ever the elected official’s fault. It’s either a misunderstanding, misreporting, or bad staff work.
That’s the external message. The danger is when that becomes your own internal message as well, and you lose your grip on the objective reality. In this kind of atmosphere, lying, especially to yourself, becomes a basic survival strategy just to make it through another day.
There’s just one catch: you cannot script a show like “Veep” as absurdly as today’s political reality. And so, while it begins as farce…