The Tour of Washington D.C.’s Political Thrillers

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Take a pilgrimage to the real locales of the nation’s capital’s fictionalized power players

Scoundrels, spies, and scandals pulsate through Washington D.C., a place where Congressional leaders and would-be presidents twist through a conga-line of back channel deals stepping toward more power.

At least that’s how the District appears on the half-dozen television dramas that purport to present political Washington. Whatever you believe about real government, the fictional D.C.’s web of secret agendas, CIA analysts, murders and covert factions makes for entertaining watching.

Despite Washington D.C. as the setting, none of the shows regularly films in the city. Homeland films in Charlotte, N.C., Scandal in Los Angeles, and Madame Secretary, Blacklist, and State of Affairs in New York City and House of Cards, in Baltimore. Nonetheless, the District’s icons, museums, memorials and streets star in establishing shots and sometimes play bit parts in the popular political thrillers. Last summer and fall House of Cards’ crew rolled cameras into the District for more than mere background shots—at least that’s the hope. Follow this guide for a pilgrimage to the real locales of Washington, D.C.’s fictionalized power players.

1) 15th Street near New York Avenue NW

Diversions are de rigeur in “Dark Washington” and former CIA analyst and professor Elizabeth “Bess” McCord (Téa Leoni), star of CBS’ Madame Secretary, stages one in the pilot episode. To draw attention from an interview given by the parents of two idealistic, but misguided brothers imprisoned in Syria, Bess, accepts the advice of a stylist, shedding her conservative gray skirts and blazers-at least for a photo op—for a stylish deep red dress and matching coat. She crosses 15th Street near New York Avenue N.W. trailed by reporters and photographers, successfully shifting the focus from the jailed brothers she’s attempting to rescue.

2) Newseum

The opening credits for Netflix’s House of Cards include the façade of the Newseum emblazoned with its First Amendment quote guaranteeing, among other things, freedom of the press. Some of the Scandal characters mention the landmark building while looking at a D.C. map to plot their next actions. The Newseum also appears in the pilot of NBC’s Blacklist. A terrorist pursued by FBI agents, runs into the Newseum, climbs the glass staircase and dashes onto the terrace. He has no time to admire the splendid view of the Capitol as he’s shot by agent Donald Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) who thinks the bag guy is Reddington (James Spader). He’s not and the terrorist plunges over the rail to the street below.

You, however, can admire the terrace’s spectacular sweep of official Washington and also take time to peruse the museum’s items about real terrorists. At the “FBI Exhibit,” closing in July, see the Unabomber’s cabin, and at the 9/11 Gallery, view a section of the Pentagon wall destroyed in the 9/11 plane attacks. In “President Lincoln is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination,” follow the unfolding news of the assassination in seven editions of the New York Herald, all printed on April 15, 1865. The exhibit opens February 13.

3) DAR Constitution Hall

Film permits reveal that Netflix’s popular House of Cards filmed DAR Constitution Hall in October 2014 and blog and twitter sightings confirm that Kevin Spacey, the devious President Frank Underwood, was on set. Netflix, as per its policy, refuses to comment on upcoming episodes. Was Underwood speaking at a conference, meeting a confidante, setting in motion a power play? We’ll know when Season 3 of the popular show debuts February 27.

Constitution Hall, however, was the site of an infamous scandal. In 1939 the DAR cancelled a concert by African American contralto Marian Anderson because of her race, explaining that DAR’s facilities were for whites only. Repulsed by such racism, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for the concert to be held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people attended.

4) Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Part of the October 2014 D.C. shoot for House of Cards season 3 took place at the FDR Memorial where fans spotted Kevin Spacey, a.k.a. President Frank Underwood. What Underwood/Spacey’s purpose there remains a mystery. The FDR Memorial stretches out on 7 ½ acres near the Tidal Basin. The four outdoor “rooms” detail elements of FDR’s four term presidency. Perhaps Underwood girds his courage by remembering FDR’s quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Looking at the sculpture of Fala, FDR’s beloved dog, might also remind the Machiavellian Underwood of Harry Truman’s quip, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

5) Pennsylvania Avenue NW and nearby streets

Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., even in the earliest plans of federal architect Pierre L’Enfant, stood as the route of prominence, connecting the U.S. Capitol to the President’s House, as the White House was then called. Inaugural parades march down the avenue and motorcades whizz by, a symbol of power and privilege.

That’s why many fictional politicos, including NBC’s State of Affairs President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) and House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) appear in limos driving down Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Most of the time, the film crew shoots the cars’ exteriors and the magic of screen editing places the stars in the backseat where the Capitol dome shines through the rear window.

In the opening credits for the Netflix series the noted avenue appears in a long shot anchored by the distant Capitol and also in a closer view of the Newseum. House of Cards’ crews received permits in August 2014 to film Pennsylvania Avenue from 3rd to 15th streets NW so look for more motorcades in the season 3. Permits also covered areas around the National Mall, including 3rd, 7th and 9th streets NW between Independence Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenues, which could mean glimpses of the National Gallery of Art East Wing, the Navy Memorial, and National Archives. Additional permits allowed crews on Independence Avenue SW between 3rd and 14th streets so look for more shots of the Washington Monument, the National Air & Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.

Blacklist, mostly filmed in New York City, in March 2013 taped two SUV’s and a Mini-Cooper careening down 13th Street N.W., screeching to a halt as they turned left onto Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

6) Monuments and Memorials

D.C.’s monuments and memorials, however fleetingly glimpsed, serve as icons for establishing shots that convince viewers of a show’s setting, especially if a series is filmed elsewhere. The same goes for the District’s iconic buildings. According to the National Mall and Memorial Parks Division of Permits Management, responsible for commercial filming permits on parkland, all of the shows—House of Cards, Homeland, Scandal, Madame Secretary, Blacklist, and State of Affairs—have used D.C.’s recognizable monuments and memorials as background.

Among the many examples: Blacklist’s Raymond “Red” Reddington in the pilot and meets terrorist Ranko Zamani at the Lincoln Memorial. In State of Affairs a home-grown terrorist places a suspicious bag by the Washington Monument. Often, and to the irritation of Washingtonians, the shows take liberty with the District’s layout. In Showtime’s Homeland teenagers Dana Brody and Finn Walker, the vice president’s son, drive to a spot just outside the Capitol. Secret Service men trail them. In search of privacy, the couple walks a few steps to the closed Washington Monument. Duh. In reality that would require a power walk of some 20-minutes.

7) Pentagon, State Department

Establishing shots hone in on Washington, D.C.’s iconic buildings and famous places. The Pentagon exterior appears in many episodes of ABC’s Scandal. The best place to see the Pentagon is from the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, a moving tribute to the 184 people who died when a terrorist-manned plane crashed into the Pentagon. Free guided tours of the Pentagon interior are available only with advanced tickets. Request these 14-90 days in advance.

Scandal, Homeland and of course Madame Secretary showcase the exterior of the State Department, frequently with an aerial shot that includes the billowing glass ceiling of the nearby United States Institute of Peace. While you won’t see Téa Leoni or even Secretary of State John Kerry on a tour of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, you will walk through elegant rooms where diplomats sip wine amid exquisite 18th and 19th century furniture and fine art. Request free tours 90-days in advance.

8) White House, U.S.Capitol

For establishing shots of the White House, film crews favor the view from the Ellipse, a.k.a the President’s Park. The defining shot across the grassy park appears in most all the political thrillers, including Scandal, Homeland, Madame Secretary and House of Cards, which may use more White House exteriors now that Underwood/Spacey has attained the presidency. State of Affairs relies more often on scenes with President Constance Payton (Alfre Woodard) being briefed by Charleston “Charlie” Tucker (Katherine Heigl) in a recreated Oval Office. You won’t see the Oval Office on a White House tour, but you might walk through the East, Green, Red, Blue and State Dining rooms. Request a free White House tour three weeks to three months in advance by contacting your senator’s or representative’s congressional office. With or without a tour, learn more about the president’s house at the White House Visitor Center, available without a ticket.

To get a relatively close-up of the Capitol, the political shows favor the view of the building from the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, west of the Capitol building near the Capitol Reflecting Pool. Homeland and Scandal use this perspective and in House of Cards’ opening credits, darkening clouds roil over the statue so that even the bronze lions look up to no good. Although some same-day passes for U.S. Capitol tours are handed out, it’s best to request a tour in advance through your representative or senator or on your own. Whether you have tickets or not, allow time to explore the Exhibition Hall at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center.

9) Arlington National Cemetery

Scenic shots of Arlington National Cemetery appear in Madame Secretary. In State of Affairs the funeral of Aaron Payton, the president’s son and CIA agent Charlie Tucker’s fiancé takes place at the cemetery. Against the simple white grave markers, Charlie vows to President Payton to hunt down and find who murdered Aaron. Arlington is the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the graves of many famous military personnel, including John F. Kennedy. Tours are available.

10) FBI Headquarters

In House of Cards’ opening credits the FBI Headquarters looms screen left. However, the building with the concrete blockades is not likely the site—fictional or real—of the underground complex where FBI agent and profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) meets and works with Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) since Blacklist films in and around New York City. The FBI stopped its popular tour after 9/11 and reinstated a new version, a self-guided tour of the FBI Education Center on August 25, 2014. The center presents exhibits about various divisions within the agency. In FBI 101 see how comic books, toys and games portray the agency; in 9/11 look at a section of the Pentagon wall that crumbled; in Science and Law learn about forensic science and the FBI lab and in the Hall of Honor, discover agents who have been slain in service. Request tickets two months in advance through your congressperson.

11) More streets and neighborhoods

House of Cards’ opening credits provide the longest, identifiable distinctly D.C. views of the six shows. Many are mentioned above. Die-hard fans may want to add the following to their political drama pilgrimage: drive along Rock Creek Parkway heading north to capture the eyeful of Georgetown’s Washington Harbour. Drive north on North Capitol St. NE to where the road dips under an overhead bridge near T St to locate the blocks of brick row houses; cross the bridge to Rosslyn and turn around to experience some of the District’s scenic shots.