Presenting Ethics Alarms’ 67th Rationalization: The Underwood Maneuver or “That’s In The Past”


The latest addition to the Ethics Alarms Rationalization List is #50 A, The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past.” It is a sub-rationalization of #50, The Apathy Defense, or “Nobody Cares,” and the 67th dishonest, illogical or otherwise ethics-busting excuse for wrongful conduct on the list.

This rationalization has the honor of being named for a President, though a fictional and sinister one: Frank Underwood, the devious, psychopathic, lying and murdering Chief Executive, played by Kevin Spacey, who leads the den of thieves and blackguards who populate the fictional Washington, D.C. in the Netflix drama, “House of Cards.” I owe the series my gratitude for reminding me of this classic rationalization, which is a favorite not only of  President Underwood and his Lady Macbeth-like First Lady, but also—just coincidentally—of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Hillary’s current campaign is built on it.

The Underwood Maneuver is versatile. Frank’s favorite use of it is when he is seeking assistance from one of the gazillion elected officials, appointees and other whom he has lied to or metaphorically stabbed in the back. “Why should I trust you now, when you betrayed me?” these poor souls are always asking. “Oh, but that was in the past!” says Frank, in his gentle South Carolina accent. “This is now. We need each other now. What’s done is done. Let’s move forward.”

What makes the Underwood Maneuver so devilishly effective is that, like many other rationalizations, there is a nugget of common sense in it that makes it seem reasonable. Why let an incident that cannot be undone limit our options today? Why be hampered by bitterness, anger, and hurt, when a new slate looms, and all can be made right? Like its parent, The Apathy Defense, #50 A also hints that dwelling on past wrongs is pointless, graceless and irrational. Everybody has forgotten about that, so why can’t you? Why can’t you move on?

The Underwood Maneuver falsely holds that time erases accountability. Like Frank, real life unethical politicians know that if responsibility for a scandal. lie or crime  can be denied, delayed, ducked, distorted and ignored long enough, the news media and the public will become fatigued and frustrated, and ultimately give up on holding the wrongdoers accountable. Out of political life, we have a sack full of nostrums and wise saying that urge us to move on from bad experiences. Let bygones be bygones. Forgive and forget. Let the past stay in the past.

This of course, is wonderfully useful to the habitually unethical, because “moving on” gives them the benefit of undeserved forgiveness and trust, and an opportunity to repeat their unethical and harmful conduct, or worse. The Underwood Maneuver doesn’t just urge its victims to give up crippling grudges, which would indeed be positive advice. It also manipulates the victim of wrongful conduct into forgiving and forgetting without the essential contributions a truly reformed wrongdoer must make to the equation: admission of harm , acceptance of responsibility, remorse and regret, amends and compensation, and good reason to believe that the unethical conduct won’t be repeated. Frank Underwood never provides any of that, because #50 A, The Underwood Maneuver, or “That’s in the past” is designed to put  gullible victims at ease so they will let down the guard that experience would otherwise  provide to them.

By emphasizing that wrongdoing was in the past, this rationalization all but assures that it is also lurking in the near future.

16 thoughts on “Presenting Ethics Alarms’ 67th Rationalization: The Underwood Maneuver or “That’s In The Past”

  1. What’s absolutely funny (to me at least) is even knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt everything that Frank Underwood has done, I’d still vote for him over Hillary and Donald.

      • Well, I guess this is a bit rash. I can’t vote for a man whom I know has killed a Congressman and a journalist with his bare hands, and had a prostitute killed by his orders. No, even considering Michael Corleone’s ironic comment to Kay. What I wanted to say, I guess, is that Frank is more competent, and no less trustworthy, than our real life alternatives.

    • One of the things that kept me going during the Obama presidency was the thought that his replacement couldn’t be worse. Now that Clinton and Trump look to be the likely candidates I realize how Pollyannaish I was being.

  2. Saying “that’s in the past” can be fairly effectively parried with “so what?” What the person is really saying is “oh, get over it,” which is fairly easy to say when you’re not the one being asked to get over or forgive or ignore what happened in the past.

    Toward the end of the run of Carroll O’Connor’s second big series “In the Heat of the Night,” where he played small-town police chief Bill Gillespie, there was an episode centering on anti-Semitism. A rabbi (played by Jerry Stiller) was forced by arson and threats of violence from small-town Mississippi 25 years before the episode when he openly supported the civil rights movement.

    He knew everyone else knew who the perpetrators were, and he knew that the police, including then-officer Gillespie, were not doing a thing about it. He still holds a grudge against Gillespie and the few remaining officers from way back then, and calls Gillespie corrupt and an anti-Semite to his face.

    Anyway, at the close of the drama, after the police have arrested the current perpetrator, Gillespie goes to see the rabbi, and asks if he can persuade him that today is different from yesterday. Barely looking up from his work, the rabbi coldly tells him that is a fact and he needs no persuasion, before returning to his holy books. He can’t forget what went on then, and he’s not going to forgive this last relic who aided it by his silence and inaction.

    The wronged is not obligated to forgive the wrongdoer just because time has passed.

  3. Oh dear, Jack are you watching Ted Cruz on Cnn right now, he just got lobbed a softball and tried to hit it with his face. He refused to disagree with someone who called Chris Cristie treasonous for hiring a Muslim and called Barack Obama the first Muslim president.

    His answer is “I’m not going to play the gotya game” and then he pivited to saying the words radical islamic terror over and over. That always makes me cringe. Just keep saying those exact words and then try dealing with Saudi Arabia when you’re in the oval office, see how that works out.

    • Not so fast. Christy appointed a Muslim judge who previously represented an Iman with ties to Hamas which is a terrorist organization. I don’t think this meets the criteria for treason, but it does show bad judgement. Why should Cruz be forced to attack somebody that got caught up in their own hyperbole?

      • He wasn’t being asked to attack, all he had to say was that he didn’t agree.

        Not so fast. Christy appointed a Muslim judge who previously represented an Iman with ties to Hamas which is a terrorist organization. I don’t think this meets the criteria for treason, but it does show bad judgement.

        Are Imans with ties to Hamas no longer entitled to legal representation? I’m quite happy to judge lobbyists by their clients but lawyers?

        • I didn’t say say, although if the guy is not a U.S. Citizen he should be classified as an enemy combatant. The lawyer who has been very sympathetic to terrorist groups, is unqualified to be appointed a judge.

          • Are you crazy?

            The judge, Sohail Mohammed was working as an immigration lawyer. Mohammad Qatanani applied for a green card and hired Sohail. This is the thing you think makes him unqualified, that he was hired by someone applying for a green card.

            Qatanani was accused of lying on his application and hired a lawyer for his deportation hearing, that lawyer was not Sohai.

            This is the major screw up? This is the thing that was called treasonous? This is the horrid judgement? An immigration lawyer helped someone with his green card application. that someone was later accused of being a bad guy and now has a different lawyer.

            The other things this lawyer has done… Represented some people accused of immigration violations, helped train law enforcement on matters of Muslim sub-culture in the US and co-founded a foundation dedicated to cross-cultural understanding.

            I have no idea if he’s a good judge, I have no idea if he’s a good person, but I see nothing in his resume that makes his appointment treasonous. And for the other matter enemy combatant? What in the nine Sith hells is wrong with you? He’s getting due process, at the end he’ll either be deported or allowed to stay You don’t just get to decide someone is an enemy combatant because you don’t like what they’re accused of, not here, not even under President Trump.

  4. Conceptually, the Underwood Maneuver (UM) seems to be the opposite of the “Revenge Privilege” (RP). The RP is aka the “historically disadvantaged minority”’s reparation entitlement rationalization, aka the Professional Victim’s Delusion – a byproduct of modern group-rights groupthink, particularly useful to (and nurtured by) U.S.-cultured race-hustlers and poverty pimps, but also useful to a growing and diverse array of so-called social justice warriors, particularly within the U.S.:

    “Bad things were done in the past against ‘my people,’ so from hereon and for the sake of justice, everybody who is not one of my people owes me and my people perks A, B, C,…N [to infinity – like a list of demands by rioting, bullying college students] [and to hell with any detrimental effects those perks have on me, my people, or any other people]. This is for NOW and FOREVER; the past will NEVER be forgiven. The damages of the past will NEVER be compensated for adequately, NEVER be fully repaired such that my and my people’s entitlements end.” (or something like that)

    Both the UM and the RP are tools for rationalizing the perpetuation of gross inequality. I am sure that many of the users of those rationalizations have closed their minds around the ironic, contradictory thought that they are on the side of ultimate justice, “on the right side of history,” etc., for the sake of achieving what they consider “equality.”

      • I was probably thinking of 2A subliminally, when I put the quotes around the words. I have to go back and re-read what you say about 2A. I was probably making up my own terms for what you have already defined adequately. My first intuition is that RP is a _relative_ or manifestation of 2A, but it probably is not worth calling RP a “refinement.”

Leave a Reply to max Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.