Wounded Gingrich turns to bringing down others

As he fades, he lashes out, still imagining himself to be heroic. But he is a sadly twisted reversal of the genuine hero in the current film based on Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."

Crosscut archive image.

Newt Gingrich at a conservative event in September 2011.

As he fades, he lashes out, still imagining himself to be heroic. But he is a sadly twisted reversal of the genuine hero in the current film based on Shakespeare's "Coriolanus."

If you see the film version of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, which opened over the weekend at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown, you might as I did consider that the film's director and star in the title role, Ralph Fiennes, could be replaced in an updated American version by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then, Vanessa Redgrave could be replaced in the role of Coriolanus' ambitious and doting mother by Gingrich's present spouse Callista.

(A stage version of Coriolanus recently was performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company.  Another view of Callista Gingrich's role was contained in the Sunday (Feb. 5) New York Times column by Maureen Dowd.)

For those unfamiliar with the play, done in modern dress and setting in the current film, it is a classic story of intrigue, power, and death.  The central character, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is a cold, no-nonsense general who is hailed for saving Rome from a rebellious provincial uprising led by Tullius Aufidius, played by Gerard Butler. Coriolanus' mother has raised him to be a powerful warrior. He has a devoted wife, played by Jessica Chastain, and a young son who himself aspires to warriorhood.

Coriolanus falls on hard times almost immediately, however, as he lacks the political graces necessary to sustain popularity among powerful Roman senators and the general populace. He treats both with undisguised scorn. Coriolanus is driven from Rome and, in time, finds himself in the company of his old provincial adversary, Tullius. Driven by a desire for revenge, Coriolanus joins forces with his old enemy and undertakes an offensive against Rome.

As the offensive gains ground, Coriolanus' mother, wife, and child are sent to plead with him on Rome's behalf. After consulting with the rebel leader, he negotiates a peace treaty. Afterward, though, when he returns to camp from Rome, Tullius is moved by jealousy to order Coriolanus' murder. Knowing he faces death, Coriolanus vents the same scorn on Tullius that he exhibited earlier in Rome. His body is thrown carelessly into the back of a truck.

Gingrich, fading fast in the Republican presidential-nominating race, appears to view himself as a hero equal to Coriolanus. He has grandiosely claimed credit for achievements ("creating with Ronald Reagan millions of jobs") in which he had almost no role.

He did, in fact, engineer an historic Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, the first in 40 years, but four years later Republican House members threw him out because of his condescending, scornful behavior toward them as well as Democrats. His exaggerated, over-the-top rhetoric was directed against political friend and foe alike. He was, figuratively, driven from Rome.

Gingrich turned to peddling influence and giving lectures to conservative groups for big fees. His champion out-of-power was Callista, who had recognized his true greatness from the time she had been his office intern and mistress during the time of his second marriage to a predecessor wife, who in turn had been his mistress during his first marriage. Gingrich was grateful to Callista and showered her with gifts of expensive jewelry. She stood at his side at all public appearances and encouraged his will to power.

As Gingrich knew it would, the time came to wreak revenge on those who had slighted him and to retake the power that had been taken from him in the capital. It came during the 2012 Republican presidential-nominating campaign. That campaign's debates, on the steps of the Forum as it were, gave him the chance to exhibit his virtue and clear superiority over others who dared contest him.

But, quite soon, his grandiosity and undisguised scorn toward others became apparent. Fickle Republican voters who had supported him in South Carolina (though nowhere else) abandoned him in other places. There was, of course, only one course open to him. It was, again, vengeance.  
Gingrich's remarkable press conference, after his defeat in the Nevada caucuses Saturday night (Feb. 4), was perhaps the most negative and vicious ever delivered in American presidential politics. There were no congratulations for the victor, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, or graceful words for Rep. Ron Paul or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — only scorn. He was, Gingrich said, the victim of a conspiracy among "the establishment" of the Republican party, who were out to destroy him, national media, and villains such as financier George Soros, who had said publicly that there was little difference between Romney and President Barack Obama. Proof of calumny.

There is a real difference, of course, between Shakespeare's Coriolanus and the present-day Newt Gingrich. Coriolanus had real guts and was a real hero. Gingrich only imagines himself to be a hero and, by his conduct, demonstrates himself to be just one more power hungry, rule-or-ruin character who deserves fresh banishment. When his current role is done, Gingrich will not be thrown into the back of a pickup truck. He'll return to raking in big fees and portraying himself publicly as an heroic martyr brought down by Lilliputians.

Callista, no doubt, will be allowed to remain at his side, unless he finds that she somehow shared blame for his downfall.
The film at the Uptown is not for everyone. There is no subtlety in it, only one jackhammer brutal scene after another. The lead and supporting roles are all well played. It is in all respects superior to the ersatz version being played daily on our TV screens by the inferior actor Gingrich and his dwindling supporting cast.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.