Wednesday 13 2023

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

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
Rachel Hadas, Rutgers University - Newark

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.

A black and white drawing shows a man wearing a very old looking robe putting a dagger into his stomach.
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 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 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.

Rachel Hadas, Professor of English, Rutgers University - Newark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

Monday 11 2023

Tuberville ends holdout on most high-ranking military nominations

Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol in November 2023. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State University

After holding up the promotions or new assignments of several hundred senior officers for nearly a year, U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville relented to pressure from both GOP and Democratic Senate members and ended most of his campaign against a military policy on abortion.

But while Tuberville’s announcement clears the way for about 400 appointments, published reports said that Tuberville would continue to block the promotions of 10 four-star generals and admirals.

Within hours of Tuberville’s decision, the Senate confirmed hundreds of nominations.

Tuberville’s announcement come on the heels of growing pressure from Democratic Senate Leader Charles Schumer as well as several GOP senators who grew frustrated over Tuberville’s actions that many argued jeopardized national security.

In September 2023 and again in November, the Senate got around Tuberville’s blockage by voting on several individual nominations for top-level positions, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A far-right fight

Tuberville had blocked the Senate from considering their nominations because he opposes a Defense Department policy to reimburse travel expenses for military personnel who have to leave their states to get abortions or other reproductive care.

The policy was put in place after the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned previous Supreme Court rulings affirming federal protections for abortion and returned the responsibility of passing abortion laws to the states.

A U.S. senator has the prerogative of placing what is called a hold on a measure, preventing the Senate from acting on that measure.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin characterized Tuberville’s hold as a threat to national defense. Senate Democrats have called him reckless, and more than 550 military families petitioned Tuberville and Senate leaders to end the stalemate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has said he does not support a hold on military nominations.

But Tuberville didn’t budge for months.

A man wearing a dark suit walks toward a lectern, carrying a white binder in his right hand and paper and a pen in his left. He is fallowed by a man wearing a brown military uniform, carrying papers clutched under his left arm.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin departs a news briefing on July 18, 2023, at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. At right is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Win McNamee/Getty Images

No monopoly on Senate holds

The practice of senators placing holds on legislation has become more frequent in recent decades. But it is not a practice confined to lawmakers of one party.

Republican Sen. J. D. Vance of Ohio placed a hold on the confirmation of Justice Department officials to protest the federal indictment of former president Donald J. Trump. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is using the same tactic to block President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the National Institute of Health until the Biden administration delivers a plan to lower prescription drug prices. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will not approve any nominees for positions in the Environmental Protection Agency because he opposes proposed regulations to limit power plant emissions. The holds these senators are using make a connection between the agencies the senators want to take an action and the agencies’ nominees.

Tuberville had been using the hold to get the Senate to vote on a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire that, if passed, would make the Defense Department’s policy law. In that case, Tuberville said he would relinquish his hold. If the bill fails, he wants the Defense Department to end the policy on reimbursement for travel related to reproductive care.

Holding promotions hostage

This is not the first time senators have used the promotion process to object to military policy or practice. But, in most cases, those objections pertained to specific individuals.

Perhaps the most obvious cases occurred during the Civil War when the Republican senators most committed to ending the war and ending slavery dragged their heels over promotions as a way to push that agenda.

General George G. Meade is perhaps best known as the victorious U.S. general at the battle of Gettysburg. You might think that leading the army that defeated Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the war’s most famous battle would mean Meade would have no problem securing a well-deserved promotion.

But that was not the case. Meade’s handling of his forces at Gettysburg came under criticism from a congressional committee – the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War – as well as some of his fellow generals, who wanted to highlight their own contributions, while diminishing his.

Essential to that scrutiny was that Meade had a reputation as a Democrat who was not an enthusiastic supporter of emancipation as a war aim. His detractors, including committee members and several generals, embraced the destruction of slavery and wanted war to be waged vigorously against Confederate civilians as well as enemy forces.

A street-level view of a five-sided office building.
The Pentagon building, located in Arlington County, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a result, Meade’s promotion to major general in the regular army – a rank that would persist after the war – ran into snags, largely because of concern that if Meade were nominated, the Senate would not confirm him.

Although General Ulysses S. Grant repeatedly pushed for Meade’s promotion, it would not be until November 1864, after President Abraham Lincoln was safely reelected, that Meade’s name was presented for confirmation, according to the book “Meade of Gettysburg.” The Senate finally approved the promotion in February 1865, just two months before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House.

Other army promotions faced similar obstacles. Even Grant’s elevation to lieutenant general in the winter of 1863-1864 proved a struggle, as Congress wrangled over the wording of the bill that reestablished that rank. Some Republicans wanted to delay the promotion until the end of the war; others wanted to force Lincoln to nominate Grant for the new rank. It took over 11 weeks just to pass the bill, and Grant accepted his commission in March 1864, some three months after the bill was introduced.

These cases involve individuals, albeit in high positions, and in many cases political debate over the promotions involved discussions of their presumed support for the destruction of slavery as a war aim.

Tuberville’s actions were not focused in the way those previous cases were. He blocked consideration of all nominations because of an unrelated Defense Department policy. This public obstruction spotlights how Senate rules, written and unwritten, offer opportunities for individual senators to impede the legislative process until their demands are met.

This is an updated version of an article published on July 26, 2023.

Brooks D. Simpson, Foundation Professor of History, Arizona State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.