HBO's K Street can give you a migraine.

What you're watching.
Sept. 15 2003 7:09 PM

Liars in Love

HBO's K Street is good drama but lousy epistemology.

Carville plays "Carville"
Carville plays "Carville"

If politics is show business for ugly people, as Paul Begala famously put it, what do we call politics when it's served up as show business?

There's nothing new about boosting the verisimilitude of political fiction by lacing movies and TV series with cameo appearances by real politicians, journalists, and other Washington hangers-on. The technique is at least as old as HBO's Tanner '88, produced 15 years ago by Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau. In Tanner, a make-believe Democratic presidential candidate named Jack Tanner interacted with real candidates like Bruce Babbitt. As you would expect in any work of fiction, the larger truths were provided not by the real Washingtonians but by the fake ones—Michael Murphy as Tanner and most especially Pamela Reed as Tanner's deliciously hard-boiled campaign manager.

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The premiere episode of K Street—the new HBO series from producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney—is something different, because its star, James Carville, is a real person playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself. (Carville, ironically, is Begala's onetime partner in the political-consulting business; the two became famous by helping to steer Bill Clinton to victory, and today they co-host CNN's Crossfire.) In real life, Carville is pretty much out of the political-consulting business. According to his Web site, Carville hasn't taken on a new client in the United States since Clinton's election, though he remains a name partner in two London-based firms, Gould Greenberg Carville and G.C.S. Issue Management, where he does some international work. In K Street, though, "James Carville" and his wife, Mary Matalin (who recently left the White House, where she was senior adviser to Dick Cheney), have decided to cash in on their bipartisan connections by starting a Washington lobbying firm. It's no small testament to the powerful lure of show biz that Carville and Matalin agreed to pretend on K Street that they're much sleazier than they are in real life.

I've stated elsewhere my worry that K Street will further glamorize Washington's influence-peddling racket and that it will lend too much credence to lobbyists' self-image as wayfarers through a thicket of moral complexity. The inaugural episode did not dispel that anxiety. It focuses on the decision by "Carville" to provide debate prep to presidential candidate "Howard Dean" (who appears as himself). "We're going to need some client shoring-up," a worried "Matalin" says, and dispatches an aide named Maggie Morris to soothe Republican Sens. "Don Nickles" of Oklahoma and "Rick Santorum" of Pennsylvania. (As played by Mary McCormack, Maggie, humorless and consumed by petty anxieties in the Beltway manner, could be a promising character.) It isn't entirely clear whether "Nickles" and "Santorum" are themselves the clients. If they are, it isn't really plausible that "Matalin" would worry they'd be surprised or at all troubled that name partner "Carville" was dabbling in Democratic politics. More plausibly, "Nickles" and "Santorum" are being soothed because congressional Republicans have lately been pressuring lobby firms to be more pro-Republican, brandishing the veiled (and sometimes not-so-veiled) threat that their corporate clients will otherwise suffer. Any assistance from "Carville" to "Dean" might therefore risk being seen as a taunt. Santorum is actually a key enforcer in this shakedown; he holds weekly meetings with Republican lobbyists to check up on whether they've hired more Republicans. (For more on this, click here.) I do wish HBO had found some way to make this unseemly reality more explicit to K Street's viewers.

Most of this first installment shows "Carville" indulging his partisan passions while dutifully pausing, from time to time, to consider the risk it poses to his new company and to marital peace. ("This thing is gonna cost me right out the wazoo," he frets at one point, with believable insincerity.) Once or twice I found myself ready to shout at the screen, "Well, if you knew you couldn't stop helping Democrats, why did you become a sellout corporate lobbyist?" Then I remembered that the real Carville hadn't. Carville did marry Matalin, however, and the two play their Hepburn-and-Tracy scenes with genuine flair. No doubt they've benefited from honing their act on public-affairs TV and the lecture circuit for more than a decade. At this point, one suspects, the real challenge for Carville and Matalin would be playing their real selves, not synthetic ones.

The liveliest scene shows "Carville" and "Begala" prepping "Dean." Part of its fizz comes from the simple fact that Dean is right now the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and part of it comes from the audience's knowledge that the debate in question took place just last week. Mostly, though, it's a reminder that electoral politics is not only more elevating but also more interesting than whatever's doing on K Street.In the prep scene, "Carville" gives "Dean" characteristically pithy advice ("Don't become the front-runner now that you are the front-runner"). He also feeds "Dean" a wisecrack that the real Dean actually used in the real debate, to the effect that if having lots of black constituents made you more sensitive about race, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King. According to the New York Times, this was no simulation; Dean really was fed the line by Carville.

Will I keep watching? Absolutely. The half-hour premiere was briskly paced and nicely framed with the gradual introduction of a new, vaguely sinister-seeming character named Francisco Dupré (played by Roger G. Smith), a refugee from California politics an investor is forcing "Carville" and "Matalin" to hire. I do hope, though, that as K Street progresses, the show will feature fewer "real" people and more fictional ones. That will produce fewer distractions about how the "real" people differ from themselves. And it may free up the actors to paint the lobbying world in less muted tones.It's a lot more lurid than K Street lets on.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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