Ethics, Power and Politics

On November 4, 2013, the Government Department sponsored a discussion on ethics, power and politics with Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey and Georgetown government faculty member Ron Klain (C’83). The discussion served as the 2013 Sullivan Lecture on Ethics and Government, which examines the ethical dilemmas faced by governmental officials, lawyers, and other professionals.

Excerpts from The Hoya

Spacey, Klain Talk Ethics” by Braden McDonald, November 5, 2013

Actor Kevin Spacey and Ron Klain (CAS ’83), former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, roused a packed Gaston Hall on Monday evening in a discussion about ethics in politics.

Most of the event […] centered on the ethical commentary in Spacey’s TV show “House of Cards.” […]He said that the show, which depicts American politics as ruthless and ethically shady, carries special relevance at a time when the United States is enduring what he called “one of the most paralyzed governments” in years.

“There are … politicians who were viewed as ruthless, very difficult, in your face and [who] would do dirty, dirty nasty things, who are being re-examined. Lyndon B. Johnson is being reexamined as a politician. A lot of people thought he was the toughest son of a b - - - - in the world, but he got three civil rights bills passed,” Spacey said.

Spacey drew on his experience filming “Recount,” a 2008 political drama in which he played Klain, to affirm that the macabre portrayal of American politics in “House of Cards” is accurate. “The s - - - that went down in that experience was some of the most extraordinary mind-boggling manipulation. I watch what’s going on in Washington and I think to myself, ‘our scripts aren’t that f - - - - ing crazy,’” Spacey said.

To provide an example, Spacey argued that the ambiguity surrounding the validity of promises in the series is reflective of their impotence in today’s political climate. “We’ve just been through a situation that began, or was at least spearheaded by, a promise that was made and couldn’t be delivered on: Boehner saying it was, ‘Yes, we have a deal, Oh, I can’t deliver on the deal, Oh, let’s shut down the government.’ We do seem to be existing in a time where that is happening. Welcome to the world of human contradiction,” he said.

[…] Klain drew on his lengthy career in government to argue that ethics still have a prominent place in U.S. politics.

“I understand why there are political figures who disappoint and disenchant us,” Klain said, “But I believe people on both sides are in politics for the right reasons and do things in an ethical way every day.”

Spacey agreed, suggesting that to deem a politician either unethical or ethical is too simplistic. “Life is not black and white, and sometimes it is very easy for us to say, ‘This is bad,’ and, ‘This is good,’ whereas we all generally live in a world that’s a little more gray. It’s the gray that’s interesting — where we find common ground,” he said.”

Excerpts from The Georgetown Voice

Kevin Spacey and Ron Klain talk ethics in Gaston Hall” by Dan Paradis, November 7, 2013:

The  talk began with Klain asking Spacey: “Do the ends justify the means?” Throughout the night the two explored this question in depth, with special attention to modern American politics and the modern-day portrayal of ethics in theater, film, and media.

Spacey mentioned several times that the seemingly savage and brutal portrayal of American politics in his show House of Cards is not actually that far from the truth. “I’ve had more people say they think House of Cards is closer [to the state of democracy in the US],” said Spacey.  [..]

The two also pointed to the allure of evil, especially its development in theater and film. Spacey talked about his experience playing Shakespeare’s Richard III. He said how the audience was always entranced by his character and his brutal methods to gain power, until his character started killing people, at which point the audience would proceed to watch with horror as the events continued to unfold. “Welcome to the world of human contradiction,” Spacey said.

[...] Spacey talked about his acting career in relation to ethical questions. “I like to be able to do the best job that I can in telling the story and allowing the audience to make up their minds in how they feel,” he said.

He added that he is grappling with these same questions of ethics as everyone else, and that it is up to today’s generation to define right and wrong now. Yet he was still hopeful for the American political system, saying “I do believe it can be such an incredible force for good.”

The discussion itself ended ambiguously, however, as Spacey finally answered the original question; “So, do the ends justify the means? Maybe.”

Kevin Spacey

 Kevin Spacey has been the Artistic Director of The Old Vic Theatre Company in London, since 2003. He has appeared in many of the company’s productions including Richard lll. He received Evening Standard and Olivier Awards for Best Actor in The Iceman Cometh and a Tony Award for Lost in Yonkers on Broadway. In 2010 he was honoured with becoming a Commander of the British Empire from Her Majesty the Queen for services to the theatre.

Film work as an actor includes The Usual Suspects (Oscar, Best Supporting Actor), Swimming with Sharks, Seven, American Beauty (Oscar, Best Actor), LA Confidential and Margin Call. He is currently starring in and producing the second season of the original Netflix series, House of Cards. The series has been nominated for 9 Emmy Awards. His production company Trigger Street has produced The Social Network nominated for the Best Picture Oscar and the upcoming Captain Phillips starring Tom Hanks, directed by Paul Greengrass.

The Kevin Spacey Foundation provide arts education programs to young people. Kevin borrowed its motto "send the elevator back down" from his great friend and mentor Jack Lemmon.

Ron Klain

Mr. Ron Klain has devoted considerable time to public service, most recently as a senior White House aide to President Obama, and Chief of Staff to Vice President Joe Biden from 2009 to 2011. Earlier, he served as Chief of Staff for Vice President Al Gore, Chief of Staff and Counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno, Staff Director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Committee, and Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Klain was also Associate Counsel to President Clinton in charge of judicial selection.

He gained national notice as General Counsel for the Gore Recount Committee in 2000, in recognition of which he was selected as one of National Law Journal's "Lawyers of the Year," and portrayed by Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey in HBO's film "RECOUNT."

Ron Klain is General Counsel of Revolution LLC, an investment firm launched by AOL Co-Founder Steve Case to back disruptive. Prior to joining Revolution in 2005, Mr. Klain spent four years as a partner and National Practice Group Chair at O'Melveny & Myers LLP.

Mr. Klain also serves as Chairman of the Board of the Vice President's Residence Foundation; a member of the Board of Visitors of Harvard Law School; and a Board Member of the American Progress Action Fund and Third Way. He is a magna cum aude graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was an Editor of the Harvard Law Review and won the Sears Prize in 1985. He was a summa cum laude graduate of Georgetown University (College of Arts & Sciences, 1983), where he currently serves as an adjunct professor in the Government Department teaching a seminar on Presidential Debates.