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An Improbable Comrade

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

Sometimes fate messes with our heads. A player steps out from an ensemble cast onto the stage in a role no one would have anticipated. Before Donald Trump attempted to overturn the 2020 election, Liz Cheney was a standard issue Republican in the tradition of Bush fils and her father Dick Cheney, a fiscal and social conservative, foreign policy hawk, apostle of America's exceptional right and indeed obligation to exercise power in the world, advocate for expansion of energy and mining industries, by which is meant fossil fuel, with tax cuts and deregulation the centerpiece of domestic policy. Her resume includes high-level positions in the State Department, a stint as a practicing attorney, election to Congress as Wyoming's lone member of the House of Representatives in 2016, and from 2019 to 2021 chair of the House Republican Conference, which made her the third-ranking Republican in the House.

Then came the election, Trump's effort to cling to power, and all that went with it on through the January 6 assault on the Capitol and the persistence of election denialism up to the present. Cheney rose to the occasion. She voted for impeachment. She serves impressively as vice chair on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. She does not hold back in her denunciation of bogus claims that Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election and is tireless in her warnings about threats to our system of government. She declared that she will leave the Republican Party if Trump is the presidential nominee in 2024. With her principled stand she incurred the wrath of the Republican base and a cowering party establishment fearful of that base. She sacrificed her leadership position in the House Republican Conference from which she was ousted in a secret ballot and her seat in the next Congress. And she earned respect.

On November 1 Cheney spoke with Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour in an interview sponsored by City Club of Cleveland:

Well, look, I think I have been a Republican ever since I first cast a vote, which was 1984.

And I don't—I don't think I have ever voted for a Democrat. I have certainly never campaigned for a Democrat. But we're at a moment now where my party has really lost its way. And it's lost its way in a way that's dangerous. It's dangerous because we have become beholden to a man who was willing to attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power.

That's never happened in this nation before. And my view is, if you really are a conservative, the most conservative of conservative principles is fidelity to the Constitution. And if you're willing to overlook an attempt to steal an election, to overturn an election, to stop a peaceful transfer of power, then you are being unfaithful to the Constitution.

And I think, given the moment we're in, we can't give power to people who have told us they won't respect the outcome of elections. And that's more important than any party belief. It's more important than any policy. And we can have big debates about policy. But you can't give somebody power if they have told you they will only honor an election if they like the outcome, because that is how the republic unravels.

Cheney went on share her thoughts about Nancy Pelosi.

I did not really know her before I began work on the January 6 Committee. I'm not sure if I had ever spoken to her, actually. But since I have been on the committee—and I say this. Everyone knows she is a liberal from San Francisco. I am a conservative from Wyoming.

There are many issues, maybe most issues, on which we disagree. But I think she is a tremendous leader. I have watched her up close. She is a leader of historic consequence. She has put this committee together and demonstrated her commitment to the truth.

And I think that the demonization that goes on, on both sides—certainly, Republicans have through the years demonized Speaker Pelosi. Democrats have demonized Republicans, including my dad. And it all has to stop.

Almost as striking as Cheney's praise for Pelosi is the statement that she did not really know the Speaker and may not ever actually have spoken to her before she began work on the January 6 committee. Cheney was not some obscure back bencher. She was the third-ranking House Republican. That she and Pelosi should have had no interaction to speak of before January 6 may say something about our dysfunctional political institutions. Or maybe that is just how the House functions and I betray my naïveté.

I couch my respect for Cheney in language she uses in her remarks about Pelosi and in endorsements of Democrats on the ballot in tomorrow's election: Senate-candidateTim Ryan (Ohio) and Congresswomen Elissa Slotkin (Michigan) and Abigail Spanberger (Virginia). There are many issues, maybe most issues, on which we disagree. Our differences are deep and profound, but they do not have to stand in the way of joining in the common cause against threats to rule of law, constitutional governance, and the peaceful transfer of power which make possible the civil space within we can conduct heated debates and disputes over policy.

Cheney's call for an end to the demonization of political adversaries is well taken. Here I should acknowledge that I probably have demonized her dad a time or several over the years. As regular readers will know, I make liberal, so to speak, use of the technical terms blockhead, nimrod, and dingbat when speaking of individuals deemed worthy of these epithets. They tend to be applied primarily, but not exclusively, to MAGA true believers and to Republicans who are said to know better but duck their heads in fear of the MAGA base. I would love to be able to devote more rants to progressive blockheads and dingbats, of which there are lamentably more than a few, but that would be a luxury in present circumstances where they qualify as mere annoyance by comparison with their MAGA counterparts.

During the Trump era editors and publishers at venerable media institutions faced the conundrum of how to portray the president's numerous perversions of fact, whether to go with euphemisms such as incorrect, inaccurate, not true, or to put it bluntly that he was lying. There is testimony that Trump knew Biden won the election and that senior advisers were warning him that he was being told things by others, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, etc., that were not true. Must we keep tight rein on ourselves when we describe the words and deeds of Trump, Powell, Giuliani, Tucker Carlson, Steven Bannon? Is it demonization to state flatly that they are either lying or dumb as the proverbial fencepost? Is it demonization to point out when deeply held beliefs are demonstrably false yet so widespread that they amount to instances of mass hysteria?

We do a disservice to the debates that roil the nation, upon which so much of grave consequence hangs, when we mince words in describing wrongdoing, just as we do them disservice when we allow ourselves to be carried away by the pleasures of invective. Where colorful language and lively writing spill over beyond the pale is a matter of judgment. Individuals acting in good faith may arrive at different conclusions. This does not mean that just anything goes. There is a difference that makes a difference between the wry observation that Bannon looks like a loser at the end of the bar in a Charles Bukowski story and the incredible fabrication that Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton are masterminds behind a Democratic pedophile ring. Some of our progressive comrades may object to the description of Bannon on the grounds that it is hurtful. At which I might point to advice Washington running back John Riggins gave Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor upon being introduced to her at a DC cocktail party in 1985: "Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up." (Dan Steinberg, John Riggins and 'Loosen Up, Sandy,' Washington Post, October 29, 2012). To her credit, O'Connor took it in stride. We might all do well to hold onto this as an example worth following.

Memo from the Editorial Desk. I wrote in precipitous haste. This piece as originally published referred to Senator Tim Ryan. Ryan is currently a congressman running for the Senate.

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