The last ten years has given rise to many shows with a focus on our national government and political processes. While “The West Wing” and “House of Cards” share this common setting, their respective plots could not be more different.
The West Wing is based around the idealistic White House of President Josiah Bartlet. The show’s best moments are often when the staff is at their most noble or going out onto a limb to do what is best for the American people. President Bartlet and his staff are constantly trying to balance doing the right things with what is politically feasible.
The White House in House of Cards has no such balance, with the main characters seeking to achieve and maintain political power with no regard to the costs. The ends always justify the means, and the American people are mere pawns in their quest for power.
How do these two VERY different television worlds fare when we pit their characters against each other, one-on-one?
1. First Lady Abigail Bartlet vs. First Lady Claire Underwood
Both First Ladies of the series are formidable and tough, and both also care very deeply about their personal careers. They both attempt to influence their husband’s policy decisions, with varying degree of success. They are seen as more empathetic than their husbands, which we see when TWW’s Abbey Bartlet ruins a week’s press strategy with an impromptu stand against child slavery, or when HoC’s Claire Underwood tanks an agreement with Russian President Petrov by voicing the truth about Russia’s treatment of homosexuals.
They both struggle to maintain influence over their presidential spouses, with Abbey’s husband seeking a second term against her wishes, and Clarie’s husband firing her from her post as United Nations Ambassador. Oftentimes, it seems like Abbey might have a firmer grip over her husband, as more often than not he takes her advice.
Despite this, Claire’s political savvy vastly outweighs Abbey’s. Abbey is often seen as lacking a clear policy direction. Because of this, we are giving this round to Claire Underwood.
Winner: House of Cards’ Claire Underwood
2. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry vs. Chief of Staff Doug Stamper
Tough. Smart. Gritty. Fiercely loyal. If these are qualities you are looking for in a Chief of Staff, you would find them in either TWW’s Leo McGarry of HoC’s Doug Stamper. Both have a long history of struggling with substance abuse problems, and both have been lent second chances by their presidential employers.
While we have only see a little of how Doug will operate as White House Chief of Staff, we know his M.O. from being Underwood’s long time Chief. He carries the same ruthlessness that Underwood boasts, with perhaps a shade more compassion. He is willing to cover up any of his employer’s misdeeds, and not above killing to achieve his ends.
Leo McGarry was seen as a father-figure as much as a boss. Nobody on the staff wanted to disappoint him, and that arguably could forge a bond greater than fear or threats. Leo took care of his people, once ensuring that Deputy Josh Lyman received the mental health assistance he needed, even if it might have been easier to just fire him. He led election campaigns to two straight Bartlet presidential victories, and navigated the administration through a number of Supreme Court confirmations and policy successes.
Despite Leo’s success, his decency is his achilles heel in this fight. Not willing to go to any lengths to get the job done will give Doug Stamper this round by a hair.
Winner: House of Cards’ Doug Stamper
3. Deputy CoS Josh Lyman vs. Chief of Staff Remy Danton
What job didn’t Remy Danton have in the first three seasons of House of Cards? Casually drifting back and forth from the private sector, public sector, and the payroll of President Underwood’s nemesis, Danton somehow finds his way to being White House Chief of Staff.
Josh Lyman, on the other hand, spent over six years in the Bartlet White House as one of the nation’s top policy advisors. While known for stumbling over his own ego, he was even more well known for winning. He wasn’t afraid to twist wrists (figuratively, not in the literal House of Cards sense) to get Congressmen to vote the party line. Even after accidentally letting a Democratic Senator to defect to the other side, Josh managed to craft a strategy to end a government shutdown and accomplish a key policy objective — tax deductibility of college tuition. He ends the series by navigating a virtual unknown to the Presidency of the United States.
While there is no doubt that Danton was effective from time to time, he would seriously struggle in a fight against Josh Lyman.
Winner: The West Wing’s Josh Lyman
5. Charlie Young (POTUS “Body Man”) vs. Edward Meechum (POTUS Security Detail)
While TWW’s Charlie Young was not actually in the secret service, he once pushed past actual secret service agents to make sure the President was okay. His loyalty is undying, and there is no doubt he would do anything to protect his boss.
HoC’s Edward Meechum is extremely similar. His career was saved by an under-the-table intervention by Frank Underwood, and he has given him and Claire his undying loyalty since.
If these two guys got in a fight over their bosses, there’s no telling how it would end up. No way we can call this one anything but a dead tie
7. Press Secretary CJ Cregg vs. Communications Director Seth Grayson
HoC’s Seth Grayson appeared out of flippin’ nowhere in the second season to win the trust of the Underwoods and eventually rise to a White House staff position. He is extremely resourceful, a capable liar, and strong politico. He managed to keep cool under pressure, even when being yelled at by the formidable Doug Stamper.
A character that doesn’t always keep her cool, on the other hand, is TWW’s CJ Cregg. Some of CJ’s best moments are screaming at Josh Lyman for posting on a fan message board, or making a public rant after a school in Saudi Arabia allowed 17 girls to burn alive because they weren’t hearing the proper head dress. Despite this, CJ proves to be a master press-rangler and almost always has the briefing room under her thumb. CJ Cregg’s dogged determination and charisma would make her the likely victor against a snake like Seth Grayson.
Winner: The West Wing’s CJ Cregg
8. Communications Director Toby Zeigler vs. Communications Director Connor Ellis
HoC’s Connor Ellis was hired by Claire Underwood as a personal Communications Director. Connor demonstrated excellent research skills by finding an old public domain videotape of one of the first interviews Claire and her husband did together. When the Underwoods discovered Seth Grayson, however, Connor was pushed out the door.
TWW’s Toby Ziegler, on the other hand, survived almost eight full years of turmoil in the Bartlet White House. Extremely tough, capable, and unfriendly, Toby manages to navigate numerous policy issues. Toby often trips over his own idealism, however, such as when his career almost ended after an impromptu scheme to fix social security.
Despite his flaws, Ellis doesn’t have much (aside from his pretty face) to aid him in a fight. Toby wins this one easily.
Winner: The West Wing’s Toby Zeigler
9. President Josiah Bartlet vs. President Francis Underwood
Both Presidents have ranted at God, but beyond that, these two could not be more different. TWW’s Josiah Bartlet hails from New England and struggles to consistently do what is best for the American people. His empathy is matched only by his intellect, and he often makes decisions based not on politics, but on what he sees as what America needs. Bartlet’s love for his family is enduring theme of the show, culminating in his temporary resignation when his daughter is kidnapped.
HoC’s Frank Underwood is ruthless and conniving. For him, the ends always justify the means, and that end is his own personal power. While Underwood has his moments of empathy, particularly for those who have shown him great loyalty, there maybe nobody he would hesitate to push in front of a train if they put his power at risk.
While Jed Bartlet may be one of the best television presidents of our time, pitted against Underwood himself, it is likely he would be just another politician bested by a downright evil politico.