Ex-Speaker McCarthy's departure from Congress reads like Greek tragedy – however stars a 'slight unmeritable man' and never a hero

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Ex-Speaker McCarthy's departure from Congress reads like Greek tragedy – however stars a 'slight unmeritable man' and never a hero

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s departure from Congress brings to thoughts ambition and the opposite facet of ambition’s coin, humiliation – the thirst for fame and energy on one facet, ignominious failure on the opposite.

Classical literature abounds with bold characters; heroes are by definition bold.

McCarthy says he’ll “serve America in new methods.” When heroes are defeated, they don’t often retire into non-public life, claiming {that a} new chapter lies earlier than them.

Fairly, classical heroes admit and enact drastic reversals: Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone withdraws from the scene, admitting to his disastrous errors of judgment, which led to the suicides of his son and his spouse. Oedipus himself, on the shut of his eponymous tragedy, blinds and exiles himself.

Extra typically, heroes die. However McCarthy wasn’t a hero.

To fall, you want peak

In Sophocles’ Ajax, the hero is so enraged and shamed by the truth that the lifeless Achilles’ armor has gone to Odysseus reasonably than to him, that he butchers harmless livestock, deluded in his insanity that he’s killing his fellow Greeks. His insanity, despatched by the gods, ebbs, and Ajax falls on his sword reasonably than stay with the guilt and shame of his actions. However though he precisely attributes his spell of insanity to the gods, Ajax additionally takes accountability for what he has accomplished.

The suicide of Brutus is proven in an 1882 illustration.
Common Historical past Archive/Common Pictures Group by way of Getty Pictures

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, each Cassius and Brutus kill themselves. The 2 plotted and carried out a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar. Defeat by Mark Antony within the civil strife following their success is insufferable. The logic of their actions in assassinating Caesar has led them to an deadlock from which there’s no honorable escape.

Kevin McCarthy, together with his nice face and unconfrontational fashion, jogs my memory of one other passage in Julius Caesar. Late within the play, the victorious Antony and Octavian ship the third man of their triumvirate, Lepidus, on an errand to retrieve Caesar’s will. No sooner has Lepidus scurried off than Antony vents his contempt for his or her affiliate:

It is a slight unmeritable man,

Meet to be despatched on errands…

And in historic reality, Lepidus by no means bought to share within the spoils of victory over Caesar’s assassination. Banished by his erstwhile confederates, he spent the rest of his life in exile.

Slight unmeritable man: that epithet matches McCarthy. His ambition wasn’t unsure. The worth he paid to be elected speaker, after a humiliating variety of ballots solid towards him, testifies to McCarthy’s starvation for workplace.

However solely months later, the value he had paid – an settlement to make it simpler to dethrone a speaker – proved to be his undoing. From the perspective of a classicist, McCarthy doesn’t qualify as a hero. To be humiliated, to fall, it’s important to have attained some peak to start with.

Fools and ambition

American politics is rife with characters who appear proof against humiliation, incapable of apologizing or studying or altering. George Santos involves thoughts as an absurdly excessive instance – what would Shakespeare have accomplished with him?

However there are numerous others. Rudy Giuliani together with his hair dye working down his face. Sen. Bob Menendez, after federal investigators probing him for bribery discovered lots of of 1000’s of {dollars} in money stashed in his house, saying it got here from “my private financial savings account, what I’ve saved for emergencies and due to the historical past of my household dealing with confiscation in Cuba.” Brazenness is the order of the day.

Rudy Giuliani appears to speak with his mouth dropped open, and American flags behind him. He has dark dye running down his face.

Rudy Giuliani, a former lawyer for former President Donald Trump, speaks throughout a information convention on Nov 19, 2020.
Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Submit by way of Getty Pictures

What the autumn of Ajax shares with Antony and Octavian’s machinations can also be the backdrop of McCarthy’s abrupt exit: jostling political rivalries and wounded pleasure.

Ajax feels entitled to be the heir of the fallen Achilles’ armor; to have that armor awarded to Odysseus makes the humiliation worse. Antony and Octavian don’t regard Lepidus as an equal; Antony explains to the youthful man that they’ll quickly flip Lepidus out to pasture.

However though McCarthy absolutely felt wronged and wounded by his ouster, he didn’t say so. Quite the opposite, McCarthy’s particular high quality, his insistent good cheer, calls to thoughts one other relevant passage from Shakespeare. Noting his uncle Claudius’ urbane and courtly manners, Hamlet observes, “One might smile and smile and be a villain.”

Is villain even the phrase for McCarthy? Solely within the swamp of Washington, D.C., politics does he look, if not like a virtuous character, then like a comparatively harmless sufferer. His chief hubris was in playing that his maneuvers would work.

Fools will be bold; bold folks can behave foolishly. McCarthy’s want for energy at any price foolishly seeded his personal humiliation. However there was an earlier seed, one planted by that mannequin of brazen shamelessness, Donald Trump. In calling McCarthy “my Kevin,” Trump absolutely echoed what Antony may need referred to as his fellow triumvir: “My Lepidus” – the person in the end banished from the world he sought to manipulate, and despatched into exile.


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