Hillary Clinton loves “House of Cards”: A brief history of politicians’ favorite shows

The former SecState watches Frank and Claire Underwood, while Obama's tuning into "Homeland"

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Hillary Clinton loves "House of Cards": A brief history of politicians' favorite showsKevin Spacey as Frank Underwood in "House of Cards" (Credit: Netflix)

The Hillary Clinton press tour in service of her new memoir has begun with an interview in People, and she’s beating those of you who’d make a zeitgeist-y analogy to the punch. She and her husband aren’t like Frank and Claire Underwood; they just watch them on TV.

That’s right: the former secretary of state and her husband are Netflix binge-watchers, as Clinton told the celebrity magazine she and her husband had recently “totally binge-watched the first season of ‘House of Cards.’ [...] ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe we can just sit here and do this’ and ‘We’re only going to watch one episode, oh, let’s watch another. Okay, well, we have time, we’re not going anywhere, let’s watch a third.’ I know that sounds kind of devoid of content.”

Far from it! Indeed, it sounds like a response the canny self-promoter Frank Underwood would have come up with on his way to ending up President. (The second season’s been out for months, spoiler-phobes.) Even presuming that Clinton actually has watched “House of Cards” — and why shouldn’t we? — the picture she paints of a married couple sitting on the couch, pressing the “next episode” button on the Roku conveys most precisely the image she’s been trying to carry across since leaving Foggy Bottom.

Clinton’s been saying that she’s enjoying her time relaxing away from public life and isn’t sure about a potential 2016 run, but it was sort of hard to believe while she was jetting around the country delivering paid speeches. The idea of Clinton chilling out with some prestige drama scales her profile back in the way no number of remarks that she’s just enjoying her life for now could possibly do. (That the prestige drama she’s been watching is about the political machinations of D.C. is that little extra Clinton frisson, that encourages wild speculation but could mean everything or nothing.)

She’s hardly the first politician to declare fealty to a television series. In the 2012 presidential election, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney claimed to watch “Modern Family” with their own families, a fairly risk-free favorite show — critically respected, far from risqué, and widely popular. It helped to signal both that the Romneys believed in family unity and that the Obamas were politically progressive but not outré. Obama did not, during the campaign, advertise that his daughter Malia was a fan of “Girls,” which came up in a later David Remnick profile, or that he was an avid watcher of “Homeland,” which the actress Claire Danes spilled. The more objectionable material a show has, the likelier it is to offend someone — no wonder Hillary Clinton dismissed her “House of Cards” viewing as “devoid of content,” and that her memoir name-checks “Dancing with the Stars.

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George W. Bush watched little TV and so ran little risk of offending anybody — he publicly proclaimed to watch only “Biography,” which made him seem, perhaps, like a student of pop history even in his off-hours. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, flew close to the sun in embracing the zeitgeist once he was out of office — when the show was at its peak of popularity, he talked about his love of the raunchy hospital soap “Grey’s Anatomy,” which was popular enough to make him seem more with-it than prurient. And the Teflon-like Michelle Obama burnished her hip-mom cred by proclaiming her fealty to a different Shonda Rhimes show, claiming to have watched “all the seasons” of “Scandal” on a flight (must have been a long one!). In both cases, the shows lent their watchers a sense of being plugged in to what was fun and chic in a fairly low-impact way. A politician hanging out with popular celebrities is, or can be, gauche. A politician sitting on the couch watching popular celebrities is the sort of person with whom you’d want to grab a beer — from the fridge during a commercial break.

Perhaps all of these pols learned from the man who did TV-references worse than anyone in recent memory — poor John McCain, who in his 2008 campaign and after reached out to “The Hills” villainess Heidi Montag and “Jersey Shore” fireball Snooki. The end result was painfully out-of-touch — not merely were the MTV personalities fairly undignified company for a U.S. Senator, but McCain called Montag a “talented actress” at a time we were all still pretending “The Hills” was real — and reinforced the notion McCain was from a time before television, perhaps even before the discovery of electricity. If Hillary Clinton starts confusing “Real Housewives” franchises and palling around with Andy Cohen, that’s when we’ll know her 2016 campaign’s dead in the water. “House of Cards,” by comparison is a tasteful choice.

Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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