Ex-Speaker McCarthy's departure from Congress reads like Greek tragedy – but stars a 'slight unmeritable man' and not a hero

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Rep. Kevin McCarthy leaves a House Republican Conference meeting at the US Capitol on Dec. 5, 2023. Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s departure from Congress brings to mind ambition and the other side of ambition’s coin, humiliation – the thirst for fame and power on one side, ignominious failure on the other.

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

McCarthy says he will “serve America in new ways.” When heroes are defeated, they don’t usually retire into private life, claiming that a new chapter lies before them.

Rather, 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 wife. Oedipus himself, at the close of his eponymous tragedy, blinds and exiles himself.

More often, heroes die. But McCarthy wasn’t a hero.

To fall, you need height

In Sophocles’ Ajax, the hero is so enraged and shamed by the fact that the dead Achilles’ armor has gone to Odysseus rather than to him, that he butchers innocent livestock, deluded in his madness that he is killing his fellow Greeks. His madness, sent by the gods, ebbs, and Ajax falls on his sword rather than live with the guilt and disgrace of his actions. But although he accurately attributes his spell of madness to the gods, Ajax also takes responsibility for what he has done.

The suicide of Brutus is shown in an 1882 illustration. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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

Kevin McCarthy, with his pleasant face and unconfrontational style, reminds me of another passage in Julius Caesar. Late in the play, the victorious Antony and Octavian send 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 their associate:

This is a slight unmeritable man,

Meet to be sent on errands…

And in historical fact, Lepidus never got to share in the spoils of victory over Caesar’s assassination. Banished by his erstwhile confederates, he spent the remainder of his life in exile.

Slight unmeritable man: that epithet fits McCarthy. His ambition wasn’t in doubt. The price he paid to be elected speaker, after a humiliating number of ballots cast against him, testifies to McCarthy’s hunger for office.

But only months later, the price he had paid – an agreement to make it easier to dethrone a speaker – proved to be his undoing. From the perspective of a classicist, McCarthy does not qualify as a hero. To be humiliated, to fall, you have to have attained some height to begin with.

Fools and ambition

American politics is rife with characters who seem immune to humiliation, incapable of apologizing or learning or changing. George Santos comes to mind as an absurdly extreme example – what would Shakespeare have done with him?

But there are many others. Rudy Giuliani with his hair dye running down his face. Sen. Bob Menendez, after federal investigators probing him for bribery found hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stashed in his home, saying it came from “my personal savings account, what I have kept for emergencies and because of the history of my family facing confiscation in Cuba.” Brazenness is the order of the day.

Rudy Giuliani, a former lawyer for former President Donald Trump, speaks during a news conference on Nov 19, 2020. Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images

What the fall of Ajax shares with Antony and Octavian’s machinations is also the backdrop of McCarthy’s abrupt exit: jostling political rivalries and wounded pride.

Ajax feels entitled to be the inheritor 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 younger man that they will soon turn Lepidus out to pasture.

But although McCarthy surely felt wronged and wounded by his ouster, he didn’t say so. On the contrary, McCarthy’s special quality, his insistent good cheer, calls to mind another applicable passage from Shakespeare. Noting his uncle Claudius’ urbane and courtly manners, Hamlet observes, “One may smile and smile and be a villain.”

Is villain even the word for McCarthy? Only in the swamp of Washington, D.C., politics does he look, if not like a virtuous character, then like a relatively innocent victim. His chief hubris was in gambling that his maneuvers would work.

Fools can be ambitious; ambitious people can behave foolishly. McCarthy’s desire for power at any cost foolishly seeded his own humiliation. But there was an earlier seed, one planted by that model of brazen shamelessness, Donald Trump. In calling McCarthy “my Kevin,” Trump surely echoed what Antony might have called his fellow triumvir: “My Lepidus” – the man ultimately banished from the world he sought to govern, and sent into exile.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization bringing you facts and analysis to help you make sense of our complex world.

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Rachel Hadas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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