Republican farce litters stage with bodies

Cassius appealed to Brutus's nobility. Party plotters appealed to their seniors' self-interest
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A disastrously failed coup attempt last week by the Republican leadership against their erstwhile colossus, Newt Gingrich, has invited inevitable comparisons in the press with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. "The Ides of July", read one New York Times headline. "Et tu, Bill?" another.

The "Bill" in this particular drama is not President Clinton but Bill Paxon, a senior Republican congressman who emerged as the dissidents' choice to replace Mr Gingrich as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The way the plot has unfolded, however, bears less resemblance to Julius Caesar than to Up Pompeii (with Frankie Howerd playing Newt Gingrich) or Whoopi Goldberg's Broadway hit, A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

Barely two years ago Mr Gingrich bestrode the political world. Mr Clinton was reduced to bleating that the presidency was relevant as the Speaker of the House - half Patton, half pop star - thundered that the second American revolution had come, that Washington politics would change forever.

The very same troops who idolised him then, who would break into primeval howls of "Newt! Newt! Newt!" at the very sight of the loved and feared Alpha Male, are the ones who have been plotting his downfall. It was the Freshman Class of '94, the year the Republicans routed the Democrats in the House, who brewed up the coup two weeks ago and then boldly invited the three most senior Republican congressmen to join them.

Dick Armey, the House Majority leader, Tom de Lay and Bill Paxon decided to accept the invitation - but not because they had any intention of going along with the fell scheme. They would meet the conspirators as double agents, the mission to find out their secret plans.

But, as the story has leaked out, the longer the Big Three listened to the young subversives, the more beguiled they became by their schemes. Shakespeare's Cassius appealed to Brutus' nobility. The Republican plotters appealed to their seniors' self-interest. When Mr Gingrich fell Mr Armey - or perhaps Mr Paxon - would be handed the Speaker's crown.

By the time the meeting ended the elders were all sharpening their knives. Gingrich, they chose abruptly to convince themselves, was a liability to the party. He was the most high profile Republican of them all but he also happened to be the one the voters most disliked. He had also lost his fire. The revolutionary, tempered by the fire of battle, had become a moderate, a Clinton appeaser. Under his pragmatic leadership the party had lost its soul. No one knew any more what the Republicans stood for.

Thus did the honourable Mr Armey rationalise his betrayal. Until, that is, it emerged that not he but Mr Paxon had emerged as the people's favourite. It was Mr Paxon who would be installed as Speaker.

Whereupon Mr Armey did what he believed he would do at the beginning - he went to Mr Gingrich and ratted on the plotters. As did Mr de Lay, who also, upon further deliberation, perceived no great personal gain in the fall of Caesar.

The conspiracy was revealed, the wrathful Mr Gingrich rallied his suporters and Mr Paxon was left with no option but to fall on his sword, which he did on Thursday when he resigned from his post as chairman of the House leadership.

Mr Armey indignantly denied accusations from within that for a period of "15 to 50 hours", as one Gingrich loyalist put it, he had been sharpening his knife for the kill. "I fully support Gingrich and had nothing to do with this," Mr Armey declared.

The word is, however, that Mr Gingrich is not blind to the fact that translated from weasel Washington English into plain English the meaning of Mr Armey's words would be, "I wanted to bring him down but my courage failed when I realised there was nothing in it for me."

The betting among Washington observers is that the farce still has a few acts left to run. What is the political future of Mr Armey, whose ineptitude has left him in a position where the Speaker views him with distrust and the young Turks he betrayed are baying for his blood? Will Mr Paxon make a come back? And what of Mr Gingrich himself? Has he the energy, courage and support to withstand another coup attempt?

The one certainty is that so long as Mr Gingrich remains centre stage the Republican Follies will continue to provide great merriment. But the funniest thing of all is that no one is laughing harder than President Clinton.