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Congress is kind of like a Shakespearean play.
There are political leaders who struggle for power. King Lear. Claudius in “Hamlet.” Duke Frederick in “As You Like It.” Heroes like Othello and Hamlet. Sages like Friar Laurence in “Romeo and Juliet.” And Shakespeare often employed a court jester or comic to speak truth to power. Feste in “Twelfth Night” or Touchstone in “As You Like It.”
We have all of these archetypes in Congress.
And then there is a laughingstock. Someone like John Falstaff.
Shakespearean scholars describe Falstaff as perhaps the Bard’s most complex character. A flawed, boastful, yet intelligent figure. In fact, Shakespeare thought so highly of Falstaff that he appears in three plays, and his death is even eulogized in a fourth.
Congress has characters like this, too.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., may not have appeared in any of Shakespeare’s shows. But he certainly shows up just as frequently in media reports as Falstaff.
Rarely a day passes without some new story emerging about Cawthorn.
Allegations of cryptocurrency insider trading. Bringing a loaded gun to the airport. Bringing a loaded gun to the airport again. Pictures of Cawthorn in women’s lingerie. Police citing him for driving 87 mph. Then citing him again for driving while his license was revoked.
Cawthorn recently claimed that fellow lawmakers invited him to drug-infused parties with all sorts of debauchery.
Cawthorn has been married and divorced during his short tenure in Congress.
But we’re not through.
A picture and video surfaced of a congressional aide younger than Cawthorn, groping him.
The information emanates from a filing submitted to the quasi-official “Office of Congressional Ethics” (OCE) by the political group Fire Madison Cawthorn. The group is angling for Cawthorn to lose his primary on March 17. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is now backing GOP North Carolina state Sen. Chuck Edwards in the primary. It is extremely rare to have a sitting senator support someone else in the primary of a home state congressman of the same party.
After the latest dustup, Cawthorn tweeted that “only fighters are attacked.” In another tweet, the congressman observed, “Many of my colleagues would be nowhere near politics if they had grown up with a cell phone in their hands.” Cawthorn then bragged on Twitter that he “gained 43,000 followers since the coordinated assault against me and my re-election.
It’s notable that Cawthorn crowed that he “built my staff around comms rather than legislation.
Cawthorn is right about the supposition that many lawmakers would suffer from the same problems he has now if iPhones and Snapchat were around decades ago. Social media doesn’t do wonders for lawmakers and ethics. There are too many videos. Too many pictures. Too many college parties. And generally, too many shenanigans.
Cawthorn has been a member of Congress for just 16 months. He’s just 26. One must be 25 to serve in the House. Cawthorn is the youngest Republican to ever to become a House member.
However, Cawthorn is far from the first scandal-plagued lawmaker to darken the doors of Congress. It’s just that he’s the one in the catbird seed now. And it’s augmented in the era of social media.
But we have been here before on Capitol Hill when an avalanche of allegations and troubles cascade onto a member.
Where do we even start?
Here are some of the “characters” who seized the congressional tableau long before Cawthorn came on the scene. It’s a host of sagas that played out under the Dome.
In 2018, former Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, faced a torrent of criticism from multiple former aides about inappropriate comments and conduct. Farenthold conceded when he won in an upset in 2010 that he didn’t know “how to run a congressional office.”
Former Rep. Tom Garrett, R-Va., left Congress after problems with alcohol. His aides said that Garrett and his wife required them to run errands and take care of their dog.
In 2007, undercover police officers arrested former Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on charges of disorderly conduct in a bathroom stall. Craig’s foot allegedly touched the foot of an undercover officer in the other stall. Craig told the officer that he “has a wide stance.”
“I am not gay. I have never been gay,” said Craig after pleading guilty.
Craig’s arrest unfolded in June 2007. But word about Craig’s arrest never filtered out until August. At first, Craig said he would resign. Craig rescinded his decision a few days later. Craig remained in the Senate until January 2009.
In 2006, explicit text messages materialized that former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., sent to teenage pages in the House of Representatives. Foley immediately resigned.
From left, former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., and his wife Andrea Jefferson leave the Albert V Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, VA., following Jefferson’s conviction on corruption charges on Wed. Aug. 5, 2009. (Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images)
The FBI raided the Congressional office of former Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in May 2006. The Feds later charged Jefferson with bribery. Federal Judge T.S. Ellis sentenced Jefferson to 13 years in prison — the longest sentence ever given to a congressman. The House Judiciary Committee even held a hearing looking into the constitutionality of the FBI’s actions. In other words, why does one branch of government — the executive branch — have the right to execute a raid on the legislative branch of Congress?
Former Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., faced allegations of sexual assault with an 18-year-old woman in 2011. Wu later said the encounter was consensual. Wu resigned. Not a lot of people remember much about the sexual assault allegations. But then a photo emerged of Wu in a tiger suit. The tiger suit photo wasn’t great for Wu — and had nothing to do with the sexual assault allegations. But that’s what everyone recalls.
Former Rep. Eric Massa, D-N.Y., didn’t even make it through his first term. The House Ethics Committee launched a probe into Massa after male aides accused the congressman of sexual harassment. On Fox, Massa described what had been characterized as “tickle fights” with an aide.
“Not only did I grope them. I tickled him until he couldn’t breathe, and then four guys jumped on top of me,” said Massa.
Anthony Weiner prepares to eat a sandwich during a break from working the phone bank at campaign headquarters on September 9, 2013 in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
And then there was former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y.
In 2011, Weiner sent lewd photos of himself in his underwear to a woman following him on Twitter.
Weiner claimed he could not say “with certitude” that the photos were his. There were hints his account was hacked. But Weiner refused an inquiry by the U.S. Capitol Police.
Weiner even tried humor to deflect attention from the scandal. He told a gaggle of reporters in the Speaker’s Lobby off the House floor that the photo in the boxers may have shown “the tip of al-Qaida’s spear.”
Weiner resigned after a pressure campaign by House Democratic leaders.
Former Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., didn’t last a term. Police arrested Radel in a sting and charged him with possessing cocaine. Radel became known as the “Cocaine Congressman.” He quickly resigned.
These are just a handful of misdeeds that sent Congress into a tizzy.
Some of these are full-blown scandals. But others are just strange. Lawmakers behaving badly.
Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., punched a U.S. Capitol Police officer after she was stopped avoiding a magnetometer entering the Longworth House Office Building. The officer didn’t recognize McKinney as a Member of Congress. Lawmakers are generally exempt from passing through security on Capitol Hill — although everyone must now walk through magnetometers to enter the House chamber.
The House Bank scandal rocked Capitol Hill in the early 1990s. An investigation found that hundreds of lawmakers wrote hot checks with insufficient funds in their accounts for years.
The early 1980s featured “Abscam.” The FBI probed multiple House and Senate members for bribery and conspiracy. FBI agents posed as Arab sheikhs and offered bribes to politicians in exchange for favors.
U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks to the crowd before former President Donald Trump takes the stage at a rally, April 9, 2022, in Selma, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward, File)
Each of these tales merited daily news coverage by the congressional press corps. Such is the case today with Madison Cawthorn. Cawthorn’s had his run-ins with the law on the road and at the airport. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., questioned whether authorities twice-afforded Cawthorn special treatment after bringing a firearm to the airport. Pelosi claimed there seemed to be a “double standard” with Cawthorn.
Most of Cawthorn’s troubles stem from questionable social media posts — especially for a member of Congress. Like in Shakespeare’s plays, congressional veterans have seen similar characters facing allegations and problems like Cawthorn.
Members of Congress are human like everyone else. Scandals and foibles. And bad judgment.
Near the Capitol is the Folger Shakespeare Library. A statue of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream points generally in the direction of the Capitol. The inscription: “What fools these mortals be.”