A District of Ice and Fire
It’s been a month since Game of Thrones, HBO’s fantasy series based on the novels of George R. R. Martin, wrapped up its second season. And the more we rewatch episodes via OnDemand, the more Martin’s sprawling epic of dragons, ice demons, and warring dynasties feels like an allegory for our situation here in the District: The good guys have fatal flaws, the bad guys nevertheless do plenty of good, and everything is always more complicated than it first seems.
When you play the game of thrones in Westeros, you win or you die. In D.C., you just get indicted.
Winter is coming, but not if global warming gets here first. Like D.C.’s smart-growth set, the Starks of the North have a rigid moral code and a tiny sense of humor—and in a just world, they might come out on top. But politics is a nuanced business, in D.C. as in Westeros, and the Starks just aren’t conniving enough for the long game. Like Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, Robb Stark has good intentions and little interest in realpolitik, traits that will undermine his executive ambitions. Like Bran, Robb’s crippled younger brother, progressive Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie may spend some time in the political wilderness, but somewhere down the line he could play a decisive role. Foiled At-Large candidate Bryan Weaver has a kindred spirit in Jon Snow, the bastard of the Stark clan, exiled to a life of possibly futile service at The Wall (or in D.C. terms, the movement to end corporate campaign giving). And who could forget the Starks’ bog-dwelling allies the Crannogmen—otherwise known as the writers of Greater Greater Washington?
Just as Robert Baratheon’s rebellion delivered Westeros from the brutal yoke of the Mad King, it was Marion Barry who emerged as the first great leader of D.C.’s Home Rule era. And while the mayor-for-life is still kicking around, as in the succession crisis that emerged after King Robert’s death, Barry’s true heir has yet to step forward. Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown, like Joffrey Baratheon, was done in by his greed and lack of discipline. Renly Baratheon was seen as a good suitor for the throne, so long as Westeros’ political observers limited their polling to Renly’s encampment; Vincent Orange recently displayed the same ego complex. Or perhaps it’s the current mayor. Vince Gray is a severe, humorless moralizer in the vein of Stannis Baratheon, and where Stannis’ flame-haired enchantress Melisandre is suspected of practicing blood magic, Gray’s closest confidante, Lorraine Green, is being investigated for alleged campaign misdeeds. But also like Stannis, Gray seems lonely in his Wilson Building perch. Mayors have no friends, only constituents and enemies.
Just like Westeros’ Lannister clan, the golden lions of District politics are the ones who control the pursestrings—but where Westeros’ richest family has ore beneath its castle, D.C.’s Lannisters control city contracts. Like Jaime Lannister, no one is more feared than the mysterious Jeff Thompson, whose gold-plated money orders helped slay Fenty (and might as well have earned him the nickname “Kingslayer”). Tyrion, the most cunning Lannister, is Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who should not be underestimated despite his bow tie and beige Beetle; few play D.C.’s game of thrones better. And whispering in the ears of the powerful is D.C.’s own master of secrets, lawyer Fred Cooke, who probably sees something of himself in Westeros’ Varys. Still, the gold beneath Casterly Rock won’t last forever, and for now, the contracts seem to be drying up. But more than a few politicians owe their rise to House Lannister, and a Lannister always repays his debts.
Across the Narrow Sea roams Daenerys Targaryen, last scion of a fallen dynasty, who is but an afterthought to the powers that rule Westeros. And somewhere in D.C., keeping a low profile but with some still begging him to attempt a comeback, is former Mayor Adrian Fenty. The following engendered by his unorthodox administration looms large. Sinclair Skinner’s animated series for the Washington Post about Fenty’s life was just as loving as Ser Jorah Mormont’s constant protection of Daenerys. And just as Daenerys found her confidence in the arms of the brutish Khal Drogo, Fenty was empowered by the fearsome and relentless Michelle Rhee as the pair went on a vision quest to remake public education. But the most striking similarity between the exiled princess and the former mayor are their winged progenies. Even today, Gabe Klein rules Chicago’s streets and sidewalks, Harriet Tregoning continues to remake D.C.’s infrastructure, and Ron Moten hatches plans for Ward 7. All three are the ideological offspring of Adrian Fenty, mother of dragons.
Westeros may be ruled by seven great houses, but plenty of other players help shape the realm’s political dynamics. Take silent executioner Ilyn Payne, whose axe, like U.S. Attorney Ron Machen’s indictments, can drop at any time. When they’re north of The Wall, Brothers of the Night’s Watch sometimes stop at the frosty keep of the wildling Craster, just as D.C. pols must occasionally visit the WPFW show of political consultant Chuck Thies (both are always eager to get out quick). Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton is D.C.’s own Quorin Halfhand, the grizzled ranger of the Night’s Watch fighting to protect the realm from its (weapons-loving) enemies. And the religious balance of Westeros has been upset by the monotheistic worshippers of R’hllor, the Lord of Light; their fervor just might equal the passion of supporters of Police Chief Cathy Lanier. The night is dark and full of terrors—and she’s gonna shoot them.
The White Walkers
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield.