I watch in horror as the spotlight highlights the unraveling of Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House. His spine is disintegrating, and his flesh is being pulled in multiple directions. I know the feeling – as a professional dance artist, I lost my soul in the process of embracing my art form. The teacher shouted out demands, “Raise your arms, not too high, lift your elbow, drop your shoulders, tilt your head, breathe, and smile.” Like a puppet, I dutifully did it all until I couldn’t dance anymore.
McCarthy’s strings came at a high price—his plastic smile masked the public humiliation he suffered when it took five days and fifteen tries to get his dream job. For six months he has been cow-towing to the far-right flank by greenlighting investigations into Hunter Biden, the Biden Administration, and just recently, without any clear evidence, he floated the idea of an impeachment inquiry into President Biden. Now, he is accusing the DOJ of using the Trump indictment for Jan. 6 to “deflect” from investigations of the Bidens while at the same time, staying silent on the actual allegations.
Two other masters of the strings, ironically both named McCarthy – Joe (a Republican Senator of McCarthyism fame) and Charlie (a puppet) – offer lessons about being snared in a web. Joe McCarthy caused havoc on America by leading a crusade against communists and everyday people. Driven by threads of his own demons—alcoholism, ego and ambition—he faced an early, sordid death and McCarthyism has come to broadly mean reckless and demagogic. His story provides a long view of how strings can negatively shape a legacy and a country.
Charlie McCarthy, the dummy puppet used by ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, was the only McCarthy literally attached to strings, but ironically the most stringless of the three. He operated independently as the authentic alter ego of his manipulator. Authentic doesn’t necessarily mean one acts with integrity. Authentic means being your own author – Hitler and Trump had/have authentic voices – but while one might argue that Charlie just channeled Bergen’s voice, Charlie could wisecrack, misbehave and express the off-color sexist comments Bergen could not say publicly.
Is McCarthy wisecracking in Charlie’s spirit, or simply feeling tortured by his own ambitious demons ala Joe in his comical contradictory statements, such as Trump “bears responsibility” for Jan. 6, shortly after the insurrection and, “I don’t know how he could be found criminally responsible,” in response to the pending indictment of Trump. Charlie, at least, proved intelligent people will listen to a dummy, but still, being remembered for a lack of intelligence isn’t the best of fates.
Oddly enough, a dancer is not that different from a politician– we both make mistakes in the limelight and are constantly critiqued for our charisma, values and authenticity or lack there-of. For me the aha moment came when my spine froze. I could no longer sustain the existential battle between my body, which was suffering from injuries and my mind, which was locked into ambitious goals. I quit and climbed mountains instead. It may seem ludicrous to Kevin now, but the option is always there to quit.
As I sat on a mountain top, the strings began to untangle. Poet David Whyte offers, “Withdrawal is often not what it looks like – a disappearance – no, to withdraw from entanglement can be to appear again in the world in a very real way and begin the process of renewing the primary, essential invitation again.” On my way down the mountain, I was transfixed by spiders who live upon a trampoline of their own making, one that serves the larger ecosystem of life. (Isn’t that what politics should be about?) Unlike the toxic McCarthy role models, spiders weave a life sustaining web, where they catch and kill prey, mate, raise their young and hide in their sticky thicket. Which just goes to show that a self-made web doesn’t prevent the possibility of eating an opponent or having a comfy hiding place.
But unlike a spider web anchored to the outside world, my body had to hang together whether I stood on my head or flew through the air. I would need an internal web made of strong and flexible threads that would connect my heart, guts, spine and limbs. An inner trampoline. I began to practice my art form differently. For a while, my stringless habitat resulted in spasmic flailing in all directions. But if I stayed buoyant within my silky threads, I could set my own course. In time, I felt free again. A physical embodiment of integrity.
Chief Cochise from the Chiricahua Apache tribe says, “You must speak straight so that your words go as sunlight into our hearts.” Kevin –there is no sunlight! The political strategy of constantly appeasing the right to pacify their hold on you and the country will ultimately fail. Your absurd about faces have only gained ridicule by both the right and left as they label you pathetic, ineffective and a spineless noodle. Cut the strings with the Lord of your Rings and the hard-right extremists, support common sense Republicans who want to win elections in 2024 and bargain with strength based on core Republican principles.
To be sure, you might get thrown out of office due to the previous bad deals you made, but it also may save your soul. And, like Charlie, your previous wooden façade may get a few splinters, but at least rigor mortis won’t permanently settle in.
It’s a long shot, but perhaps now that the ambition to be speaker has been sated, it will become apparent that power is useless if the tradeoff is being remembered as a dummy. I have hope for humankind—a bold action of such magnitude might just create a less than sordid place in history that Joe has come to occupy, and by speaking truth you might assist in healing a nation. What a legacy that would be!