The Vice President of the United States: It’s a lousy job, but someone’s got to do it. So why not cut to the chase and get a lousy person?
This was the premise of the comedy series Veep, which ran from 2012-2019 on HBO, chronicling the rise and fall and semi-rise of Selena Meyer, who schemes, rules, dominates, cowers, and obfuscates her way to power. Selena, aided (and generally hindered) by her staff, carries the water for President Hughes, and is almost totally ignored except when he orders her out to show the flag, take the heat, or be his pit bull, although Selena winds up as a Chihuahua more often than not, especially when a last-minute bit of political expediency by the unseen President leaves Selene as the fall guy . . . or gal, less a pit bull than sacrificial lamb.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played the urban neurotic Elaine Benes on Seinfeld, admirably played Selena as a power-hungry, egotistical sociopath with a necklace of emotional and political tin cans around her neck. The series was created by Armando Ianncci, who based the series on the BBC’s The Thick of It, which depicted screwed-up doings in the British government. Veep is set in America, and the doings of Selene Meyer seems to recall the old Turkish proverb that when a clown moves into a palace, the clown doesn’t become a king; the palace becomes a circus. (Are you listening, Joe Biden?)
As Vice President, Selene operates a one-ring circus where her attempts to climb to power resemble a greased pole instead of a long road to success. Selene copies what others say, but gets bitten in the ass for it. When a fellow politician mocks having to deal with the Down’s syndrome crowd as having “to hoist one’s own retard,” Selene repeats it, and the media immediately attack her. She then has to attend a penitential meeting with staring representatives of the disabled. Then, after she becomes President, she throws out an awful painting in the White House that annoys her, but it turns out that it was the only one in the building by an American Indian. After the inevitable media crisis, she has to eat crow . . . perhaps with members of the Crow tribe.
For Selene, damage control is a full-time job. But of course in a multicultural democracy such as ours, a politically correct politician lives in dread of offending any interest group. Selene’s attempt to mix with the commoners and go to a barbecue becomes a possible public relations nightmare when a roast pig is displayed prominently in the background — what would Jewish voters say to that? Frantically, the gruesome presidential staffer Jonah (Timothy Simons) is dragooned to cover the pig with his body to keep the event kosher.
Selene tries to be the good liberal and vanguard of feminism, but
flounders. She is enthusiastic about new, environmentally safe plasticware and agrees to have it used in the White House. But it turns out that when the plasticware meets the high heat of, say, a hot cup of coffee, it droops like a noodle.
Her staff is a wish list of broken toys. Mike McClintock (Matt Walsh) is her press secretary who can barely handle the job, forever balancing his personal phobias with saving Selene’s image and political hopes . . . and not. As one staffer sourly remarks to Mike, “It’s sad. You’re a terrible liar, and that’s what your job is.” Gary Walsh (Tony Hale) is Selene’s personal assistant, an ex-nurse who forever attends Selene and offers creams, make-up, solutions, and juices, and is the only one who can tell Selene who all the people in a room are. Ben (Kevin Dunn), is the old-timer who keeps the ball rolling: weary, wisecracking, and always ready to offer himself up if Selene needs a head to appease the Beltway’s vengeance — but of course Ben is far too valuable. When he gallantly offers himself, it’s only a prelude to whoever on the staff is best for the chopping block; usually Gary and Matt are neck-and-neck for the guillotine, but another likely patsy is Dan Egan (Reid Scott), a cocky, in-the-know staffer who gets stuck with the shit assignments such as finding the right scapegoat (“That goat’s not gonna scape itself”), or trying to keep a buried story from popping up to choke Selene (“It’s fitting for Easter that this story refuses to fucking die”). But Dan winds up out in the cold more than once. He is cocky, ruthless, sharp, and remorseless . . . and flushable.
Richard Splett (Sam Richardson) is another patsy, useless and bumbling. Since he’s black, Richard is the token booby, always doing and saying the wrong thing. Speaking to Amy, Selene’s trusted gofer, about a new political insider who is sharking around her assigned position, Richard is pleasant: “He could have any job he wants. He could have your job.” Amy glowers. Richard does a take. “I guess I probably shouldn’t be saying that out loud.”
But fear not: Richard will become presidential material when he becomes the wrong man in the right place.
Amy Brookhiser (Anna Chlumsky) is Selene’s Girl Friday and is much put upon, temperamental, annoyed, and a substitute mother and daughter simultaneously looking out to please mommy Meyer and serve She Who Must Be Obeyed. This is an emotionally acidic way to live, and things come to a point in the episode Convention where, after Selene dumps her Veep, she frantically seeks a replacement, like a fat girl hoping to make the prom. Alas for Selene, no one wants to go out with her.
Selene brings in Karen, a trusted friend of hers who, like many of them, is a sycophantic twit mouthing whatever anyone around her is saying at the. Selene wisely nods at Karen’s take. The staff does a lot of eye-rolling.
Amy has the solution for Selene’s Veep problem: Tom James (Hugh Laurie), a charismatic senator who draws followers like honey to flies (and Selene despises him for it; her own drawing power is decidedly vinegary), but Karen nixes it, and other candidates are suggested. All of them fizzle. Again and again Amy pulls for James, and Karen smiles it off, always having Selene’s ear.
Amy finally explodes, her tirade stunning everyone when she flings verbal acid at a stone-faced Selene, saying her constant screw-ups have destroyed any chance of victory, and, in a raging cri de coeur, says Selene has destroyed any woman’s chances of making President.
Amy has had it with her surrogate mom, and storms out. The silence is broken when Karen shrugs and says, “Well, this was all about me.” It’s a hilarious moment of absurd cluelessness.
In the end, after Amy has quit, Selene chooses Tom James. everyone toasts champagne to a glorious victory and Selene’s foresight. Ben is left to slowly guide Karen to the rear entrance and tell her Selene has fired her.
Ben is always the old guy and the creakiest of the political warriors, unfazed by anything, especially Selene’s pretensions to being a great stateswoman. When she goes to Iran to free a journalist, she is triumphant that she’s made her mark . . . until the journalist figures out that Selene had him kept in captivity for a few extra days so she could make a headline out of it and garner favors. When the journalist threatens to expose her sneakiness, Ben pulls him aside and snarls in a stream of profanity that compels silence.
Meanwhile, Mike and Gary missed getting on Air Force One and are frantically jogging through Tehran airport to make the press plane or else be stranded in Iran. When this comes to Ben’s attention, he shrugs. “Oh, great. Black Hawk Down with Laurel and Hardy.”
As it is, Selene flies off without them. Mike and Gary are, after all, flushable.
Once out of office, Selene promises to enrich her life, become an elder stateswoman, reexamine her life, and finally, to be a real mother to her nebbish, insecure daughter Katherine . . . which lasts about ten minutes as she angles to get back into the game. Her memoir is one way. The only problem is that Selene’s lack of introspection and deep thought makes her stall while recalling a spectacularly unsuccessful political career. Having Mike as her ghost writer is also a hindrance. He is neither an effective writer nor much of a ghost, even failing ethereally.
Indeed, rage is often her salient emotion when her staff bungles yet another opportunity to win big. As Gary says at one such moment, “But if word of this got out, the media would conclude you personally authorized this and so indict the presidency.” A wide-eyed, furious Selene draws close and bares her teeth. “Ya think?”
The effect is always a Chinese fire drill where the staff keeps putting out fires they either set themselves or in which Selene’s many miscalculations proved to be very dry tinder. No good decisions come from anyone. In Veep, the snake always bites its own tail.
Selene has a semi-introspective moment in the episode “Chicklet,” where she recalls the pony her father bought for her. It was always a sour point that her mother forced Chicklet to be sold, and Selene goes back to the old house, where Chicklet’s former stable has been converted into a study by her father. She hopes to get some inspiration from returning, but instead discovers her father was the one who sold Chicklet to pay off some gambling debts and purposefully blamed it on her mother, showing he was a selfish, insolvent man all his life, intentionally poisoning Selene’s relationship with her mother. Selene explodes, like Amy. She breaks and smashes everything in her father’s study; that wonderful, inspiring world was a lie. Like a Beltway Medea, Selene commands Mike to help her trash the study. Mere kicking and ripping makes her frown.
“No!” she shouts at Mike. “You have to destroy!”
Mike frantically stomps and throws things, bawling out his own inadequacies. It’s an uncomfortable scene that, had Amy or Gary been there, would have been melodramatic, but Mike is the worst person to
have for character introspection. He dutifully trashes the place as Selene exits, then gleefully rams her car into the stable, like a cartoon character. So, again, bathos becomes farce.
Climbing out of the crumpled car, she brightens in a sudden epiphany. “Mike, this is it! Don’t you see? This is the story. I overcame my horrible domestic life by going into politics.” She raises her head, arms outstretched. “I transcended it!”
So, she’s at peace, and ready to charge back into the game. When the cops show up, she explains that Mike was drunk and drove the car, and they haul him off.
Selene is relaxed, just as her father was years ago, when he lied about a car crash and blamed a friend — a reminder that Andrew, her deceitful if suave ex, is a carbon copy of dear old dad.
There is a gigantic smallness about the pols in Veep’s universe, and Selene Meyer is certainly a giantess among the dwarfs, only in that she tries to be “good.” Selene is a cutthroat and self-obsessed egomaniac, but in the end, she wants to have power so she can effect change. Others, like the perennially foul-mouthed Senator Furlong (Dan Bakkedahl), simply want to keep the game going, but Selene wants to pass good laws . . . which, judging by the world of Veep, is a contradiction in terms. Her efforts, like the Family First Bill, turn into a mess. In the episode “Joint Session,” Selene wants to wow Congress and the nation with a boffo address that will offer massive defense cuts for much-needed social service legislation . . .or would, until her teleprompter comes up empty, and she has to painfully improvise (“She’s going bebop,” Dan cries out) as the staff frantically scramble like bugs in a box to correct their own screw-ups and get the speech back on the teleprompter in a rush of manic frustration and name-calling.
Yet the end result is even more catastrophe. Furlong confronts Selene to acidly remind her that cutting an outdated naval submarine program will cost thousands of jobs across the country, since weapons are assembled from state to state to increase a cut in the military-industrial pie for everyone’s Congressional district — making any kind of serious reform of military spending impossible.
Earlier, Selene felt proud and cocky dealing with the Joint Chiefs, showing the uniforms that a woman could hold her own. Furlong, with his phalanx of contractors, beats her to a pulp. Veep is a meditation on the helplessness of American political power, and every episode seems to confirm Fred Reed’s analysis of the system: “Elections do not change policy, but only the division of the spoils. Presidents perform their three essential duties: protecting Wall Street, Israel, and the military budget, but not much else.”
It’s a running joke in the series that when Selene takes a conservative stand on any issue, such as gun rights or teaching basics in schools, her poll numbers go up — but of course, being a liberal, she always wants to bring in the progressive agenda, so she’s always fighting to keep up the pretense of being a solid conservative until she can do a shell game of the liberal agenda. Fortunately, she’s terrible at it, so Selene does little harm. Certainly less than what her staff does to her every day. She misreads politicians, and trends, and gets on the bandwagon just as its transmission goes out. When all looks to be clear sailing, a misstatement or bad visual puts her in hot water with any of the apparently several hundred special interest groups that infest any modern democratic society.
The show translates much of the Seinfeld ambience to Washington politics. Like Seinfeld, Selene and her staff deal with an irrational world that forces its mores on them; as much as they try to “change” society, American political society nearly gobbles them up in every episode. Much of Seinfeld was patterned after the old team of Abbot and Costello, where Lou Costello was constantly being put upon by various cranks and eccentrics. Also in Seinfeld, there’s the Jewish dilemma of being the outsider but pretending to finesse your way through when you’re in over your head in the delusion or scam of the week. Although obviously a Jewish show, Seinfeld tried to cover much of that by pretending that George Costanza was Catholic and Elaine Benes was Protestant. The name Benes is Czech/Slovak, although Elaine is obviously Jewish. Much like in Veep, Selene Meyer is certainly Jewish, although she goes to great pains to correct people (“Meyer is not Jewish,” she says over and over, and her maiden name was Eaton, having married her conman husband Adrian, who is echt Jewish). In this regard, milady doth protest far, far too much.
Larry David, Seinfeld’s prime creator, made no pretensions about ignoring its Jewish roots (nor denying that George Costanza, Seinfeld’s hectic, conniving, egomaniacal friend, was David’s alter ego; well, write what you know). Curiously, German television considered airing Seinfeld, but decided against it because the show was “too Jewish.” Maybe they know a thing or two, and considering contemporary Germany’s ultra-PC mode, feared a hostile reaction from Jewish critics. Besides, being a vassal state of America, the super-woke Germans didn’t want to tick off the boss.
So, is Veep anti-Semitic? Was Seinfeld? No. Seinfeld was, in my opinion, one of the funniest and biting shows on television, and Veep is a caustic, hilarious series. Certainly it is more endurable than The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s view of presidential politics as being profound, much as was Commander-in-Chief, a 2001 vehicle for Geena Davis as the first female president that lasted one season — somewhat like Selena’s administration. Veep plugged into the mojo and circuitry of Washington, where solemnity and doing great things ends up getting you a political pie in the face.
If the intimation is that Jews are running the country, well . . .?
It is much like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s more honest and raw depiction of his daily foibles. In one episode, he is attending a ceremony where a Jewish man is converting to Christianity. This annoys Larry: “No, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t convert to you. You convert to us.” Funny, and truthful. It’s interesting that a lot of Jews like Michael Savage denounce Woody Allen and Larry David for portraying “false Judaism.” Maybe Larry is just giving away the game, and doesn’t keep up the pretensions. Or maybe it is simply that David, like Woody Allen, engaged in critical self-analysis that reveals cracks in the official narrative.
Today, in our jaded and hoodie-wearing age, the pretensions are harder to keep up. There really is no man behind the curtain anymore. The bare bones of cheating and incompetence are there for all to see, and most Americans prefer not to see.
So, if Selene is incompetent, egotistical, self-obsessed, and has the loyalty of an amoeba, why does her staff put up with her? Disregarding obvious allusions to masochism, there is the jizz of being in DC and part of the game. As I noted in my review of John Podhoretz’s Hell of a Ride, people on presidential staffs are devoted because it is a way to fill their lives with power, forsaking family and normality for that high of being close to the Oval Office. “Making a difference” is the official explanation they give to themselves, but the joys of being near the court is closer. I always maintain that, with the media, if you replaced the word journalist with courtier, you’d save yourself a lot of useless agony over their takes on events. One change and it all becomes clear.
Perhaps a deeper interpretation is David Mamet’s assertion that in a democracy, power depends on reelection, and staying in office becomes a fix: “Power corrupts because it is addictive. It is an irresistible compulsion to repeat destructive behaviors, an anguished craving that can be stilled only by their repetition.”
Mamet compares politicians to gamblers who play not to win, but because they’re addicted. Much like Selene, when she is wracked with guilt over getting the nomination after Hughes resigns, she goes from despair to elation and back to despair as she keeps returning to a closet to vent her emotions, making fists, clenching her teeth, and almost screaming at her failure; then on to victory, offering a facial bliss recalling Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa among the copy paper, pipes, and mops. It was a beautiful scene that Dreyfus played perfectly; much like an addict going through withdrawal, she then shoots up and all is well. Until the need for the next fix, or, excuse me . . . election.
As Mamet explains, these career politicians can’t go home; they are home at the big table, in the most thrilling of games.
Perhaps the only act topping Selene’s was when Joe Biden was recently seen helplessly wandering around while Obama was sucking up the enthusiasm in the room at the Affordable Care Act commemoration, openly snubbing him. Biden is the ultimate husk of a political grafter — the burnt-out coal of political fire.
The seventh and final season of Veep lacked the wild farce of frustrated politics. It was more subdued as Selene once again tried to get back the presidency. The gang seemed worn out. Mike, cut adrift by Selene, was picked up by a network and transformed into a TV newscaster, showing how artificial the entire process of modern journalism is. The reporter she supposedly rescued in Iran and who despised Selene for using her becomes part of her staff — a comment on how incestuous the Beltway media is, and that there are no real political enemies, except perhaps the American people. Everyone wants to keep playing at the table, and like Selene, they all seem to follow the lyrics Eva Peron cooed to her followers in Evita: “I kept my promise, now keep your distance.”
Jonah, by a weird twist of events, is remade as a grassroots conservative, and it was obvious the show used Jonah to attack Trump. Jonah hates immigrants, and he adores God . . . yadda-yadda. When a smallpox (?) epidemic strikes, he brags about being unvaccinated and gives the pox to a relative, who then dies. This was an obvious cheap shot at the Covid vaccine controversy, and the relative idiocy of those who resisted being vaccinated . . . a resistance whose wisdom was confirmed by the increasing number of recent studies showing the harmful effects of the vaccines.
I was on to Jonah being despised from the start — not because of his crassness or filthy language (everyone on Veep is like this; HBO loves profanity, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus insisted she wanted a series where she could use all the profanity she wanted), but because he wears a sweater vest. I note liberals have a special hate for people who wear sweater vests, sort of like the way polyester was a dread word of sartorial dismissal in my youth. For the record, I wear sweater vests profusely. Draw your own conclusions.
Jonah’s obnoxious personality and support from the lower classes shows how the entertainment industry simply has no interest in understanding conservatism or any pretense of looking at both sides. The show showed its obvious liberal colors in its last season, but if we’ve learned anything by now, it is that the system and its courtiers hate us, and this bileful honesty is almost refreshing. For the first time in a generation, we know where we stand, and “we agree to disagree” is retired to the wastebasket of history.
A newcomer to Selene’s staff is the smiling, dutiful Keith Quinn (Andy Daly), a gofer she is always rude to and treats like dirt, but Keith only gives her a “yes, ma’am” and goes about his work.
Selene has a last chance at the presidency, and to win she has to choose Jonah as her own Veep. She is disgusted, but there’s no way out.
The obnoxious Jonah comes onboard. A furious Kent — Gary Cole, her humorless numbers cruncher — quits, the only member of the staff who seems able to leave the political casino.
Selene, to cement her victory, has to clear up one final scandal that could do her in, and she needs a fall guy. It’s Gary, and as she prepares to give her nomination speech, she glances as FBI agents offstage collar an astonished Gary and lead him away. Selene gives a sad, bitter glance, and then speaks to the crowd about — what else? A new age for America, of reform, of a woman . . .
For a moment we see, or almost see, some pain in Selene. For at least five seconds there is gambler’s remorse, then the roulette wheel of politics rolls on.
She regains the presidency, is ready to begin a new round of the social legislation she’d dreamed about, then frowns as she finds Keith in the Oval Office, smiling. What is that water-carrier doing there? Why, he’s her special advisor. He smiles as always. She never chose him.
To a stunned Selene, Keith explains, in a never-ending Disney smile, that the Chinese appointed him, and his job is to make sure her administration carefully follows Chinese advice and goals. After all, Keith beams, it was their money that finally got her elected.
So Selene gets a final jolt. She may have broken the glass ceiling, but above it Chinese strings that are now attached to her. Selene sighs, and calls for Gary to get her a tranquilizer . . . oops. There is no more Gary.
The action fast-forwards to years later, at Selene’s funeral. It’s held at her presidential library, which eventually got built — and is in the shape of a vagina. The old gang, now gray-haired and with lined faces, comes to pay their last respects. A pony-tailed Kent, visiting from his ranch, is the happiest, satisfied with his daughter and horses. Nervous eyes follow a muted and somber Gary, now out of jail, who appears and puts a compact of lipstick on Selene’s coffin, then exits.
Everyone seems a bit adrift. Selene was their fix, and now they have to go cold turkey. Mike — still the bland, reinvented newscaster — prepares his special segment on Selene Meyer’s legacy: her groundbreaking presidency and hard, challenging, heroic struggle as the first woman . . . but a sudden bulletin comes up. Tom Hanks has just died, and immediately all networks ditch Selene to cover the loss of true American royalty. Mike, now the bland newsy, smiles away to take us to . . .
And thus ends Veep.
Is this abrupt? Probably not. One gathers that if America collapses, it will not be with Eliot’s whimper, or a Hitlerian Götterdämmerung, but simply with a switch of the dial the program . . . and the nation . . . is cancelled. Maybe China will have syndication rights.
The show still has an edge, and if you can take the profanity, it is quite funny and farcical. Veep almost seems a kind of American Chekhov drama, much as that writer chronicled a doomed Russian empire’s ruling class, but Veep has none of Chekhov’s wistfulness or poignancy because there is nothing wistful or poignant about our system — or America, for that matter. That the puppet masters engineered the ascension of Joe Biden (80 million votes! A historical first!) shows a contempt and callousness that breaks all the records. We now live in a political world recalling the oozing corruption and bared fangs of a Jacobean tragedy.
This administration’s aimlessness and braindead acts were certainly foretold in Veep, and the series will remain a valuable social document in the future for explaining the almost profound mendacity of our sleazy ruling class and its mores. The show always has a firecracker string of one-liners, especially with F-bombs which, again recalling Chekhov, makes Veep a dyspeptic Cherry Orchard. America’s literary influence on the world began with Edgar Alan Poe, matured under Hemingway’s terse prose describing his code, and now ends with F-bombs from HBO. The background to the scenes of this rotting edifice is filled with a stone-faced Greek chorus of Secret Service agents who say nothing as the chaos unfolds before them, and a never-ending convoy of black SUVs withwhooping sirens tying up traffic as Selene and her bumbling coven go out to do the devil’s bidding.
I’ve given up watching the news over the last few years, and find an episode of Veep does just as well. Certainly, the show has a coherency Biden’s reality (such as it is) lacks, and perhaps it is closure for an entire tradition of American political humor that includes Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and H. L. Mencken, where politics is funny, rueful, ironic. Nowadays there is little humor, because the government is tyrannical, and there’s nothing funny about it. Once there was an official hypocrisy that cushioned darker intimations, but no more. When Justin Trudeau, our neighbor to the True North, said unvaccinated people are taking up space, this could have been a line from Veep, but said without irony and coming from an actual political leader, it is ominous and dangerous talk.
As for the Jewish questions raised by Selene Mayer’s background, Biden’s cabinet is overwhelmingly Jewish, as was noted in the Jewish journal Forward; so much so that the journal joked that there would be a place for a minyan in the West Wing.
Selene Meyer was, in the end, a funhouse mirror distortion of Hilary Clinton and Lady Macbeth. Time to go back and watch Veep as once again Selene searches for some Tide or 409 to get rid of yet another damned spot.
* * *
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