Is Liz Cheney a Profile in Courage?

Photograph Source: Daniel Warner – CC BY 2.0

Is Liz Cheney’s stand against former President Donald Trump a profile in courage? Cheney was soundly beaten in the recent Wyoming Republican primary to run for her seat in the House of Representatives. Despite voting 93% along with Trump while he was president, Liz Cheney paid the price for repudiating Trump following January 6 and co-chairing the House Commission on the Capitol insurrection. Trump supported Harriet Hageman who won as part of Trump’s revenge against the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him.

Senator John F. Kennedy’s 1955 book Profiles in Courage won the Pulitzer Prize for describing eight senators who went against party expediency to do what they thought was right. Many suffered political consequences. The book, although more than ghostwritten by JFK staffer Ted Sorenson, added to Kennedy’s intellectual aura and was an important step of the created mythology in the rise of the future president.

Cheney was one of the recipients of the Kennedy family’s Profiles in Courage 2022 awards. Did she deserve it?

The idea of a profile in courage is appealing. An individual, based on conscience, decides to do what is right despite current policy. The most historically significant is the vote of Edmund Ross who saved the presidency of Andrew Johnson by voting against impeachment. The most intriguing profile to me is that of Robert A. Taft, son of the 27th president, who criticized the trials of Nazis at Nuremberg on the principle that people cannot be tried for crimes that were not illegal at the time they were committed such as genocide.

Cheney’s break from Trump has much of the superficial appeal of an act of conscience in the face of constituent disapproval. 70% of Wyoming’s Republican primary voters voted for Hageman. Cheney’s condemnation of Trump in the name of saving democracy also has appeal.

In an op-ed in the Washington Post in May 2021, Cheney wrote: “I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law. Each of us swears an oath before God to uphold our Constitution. The electoral college has spoken. More than 60 state and federal courts, including multiple Trump-appointed judges, have rejected the former president’s arguments, and refused to overturn election results. That is the rule of law; that is our constitutional system for resolving claims of election fraud.”

After her defeat, Cheney defended her act of conscience as she distanced herself further from Trump. She refuted what she could have done to get re-elected by currying his support: “It would’ve required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic, that was a path I could not — and would not — take.”

Cheney is using images from Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken. Where Frost begins with “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both,” Cheney alludes to the fork in the road where she could have followed Trump and the Republicans or eschewed electoral success for the greater good of the republic.

But the road not taken has its limits. And the act of individual conscience above the general good can be circumscribed by individual ambition. Asked about her future after her defeat, she said: “I believe that Donald Trump continues to pose a very grave threat and risk to our republic. And I think that defeating him is going to require a broad and united front of Republicans, Democrats and independents, and that’s what I intend to be a part of.”

Fine. Defeating Trump is a priority. Agreed. But when pressed about her own future in terms of a possible run for the White House, Cheney said, “That’s a decision that I’m going to make in the coming months, and I’m not going to make any announcements here this morning — but it is something that I am thinking about.”

Liz Cheney is a true Cheney. Like her father, being a mere Congressperson from Wyoming is not enough. This is a very ambitious family. Dick Cheney was the Representative from Wyoming in the House of Representatives from 1979-1989 and finished as vice-president of the United States.

Given Liz Cheney’s “suicidal” campaign for Congress, where she knew she would lose and spent more time in front of the cameras in Washington during the House Commission’s meetings than trying to change Trump supporters in Wyoming, I presume this is all part of a presidential run in 2024 or a similar exercise.

And as such, there are limitations to her profile in courage. Her repudiation of Trump, however praiseworthy, appears to be a mere stepping stone to some higher office. Of the ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, four have left public office. Four were defeated in the primaries and two remain in contention. Cheney has made the most noise of the ten with her position on the House Commission. She has been regularly on the front pages.

An act of courage to denounce Trump or a political calculation? Does an act of courage have to be one or the other? As someone with strong anti-Cheney feelings, I will give her some credit for an act of courage to repudiate Trump – certainly more courageous than almost all of her fellow Republicans. But her obvious political ambitions detract from her courage. For me, her intimations about presidential ambitions reduce her profile in courage. She is, after all, a Cheney. That should never be forgotten.

Frost ends The Road Not Taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Liz Cheney will deserve a full profile in courage when I hear the sigh how she took the road “less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.