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Opinion Liz Cheney got something right — and some things very wrong

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speaks at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Nov. 9. (Mary Schwalm/AP)
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Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) delivered remarks on Tuesday at a First Amendment award ceremony in New Hampshire. Her speech reminded us how valiant she has been in the face of her political party’s descent into lies, conspiracies and authoritarianism — but also the limits of her vision.

The country faces an unprecedented domestic threat from a president “attempting to unravel the foundations of our constitutional republic,” she told the audience. It is noteworthy that she used the present tense. Former president Donald Trump, after all, has not given up on his quest to delegitimize the 2020 election.

To the contrary, she pointed out, Trump recently attended a House Republican gathering and fundraiser where he described Election Day as the “real insurrection” and the violence on Jan. 6 as justified. So much for the idea of Republicans running from Trump in 2022. He remains a clear and present danger to democracy.

Cheney quickly turned her fire on her own party: “Political leaders who sit silent in the face of these false and dangerous claims are aiding the former president who is at war with the rule of law, and the Constitution,” she said. “When our constitutional order is threatened, as it is now, rising above partisanship is not simply an aspiration. It is an obligation.” Instead, Republicans have made themselves “willing hostages to this dangerous and irrational man."

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Cheney appeared at the event to accept an award from Saint Anselm College’s Institute of Politics, but her presence in New Hampshire and her reiteration of her Republican bona fides (attesting to her belief in low taxes, limited government, international leadership and “the family” as the cornerstone of America) will stir speculation that she is eyeing a 2024 presidential run. She also made clear she is willing to lose her congressional seat and future career for a higher cause, saying, “I love my party. I love its history. I love its principles. But I love my country more. I know this nation needs a Republican Party that is based on truth.”

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) spoke to interviewers on May 16, two days after being ousted from House Republican leadership. (Video: The Washington Post)

Given how few other elected Republicans are willing to take on the GOP, no one should be stingy in praising someone who displays the moral courage needed from her party. It is no easy thing to risk one’s career and the support of one’s “tribe” for principle.

Nevertheless, her remarks were flawed in two key respects. For starters, Cheney does such a good job of portraying Republicans as utterly unfit to hold power that one wonders why she wants voters to put them back in the House majority. “We need a Republican Party that is led by people who remember that the peaceful transfer of power is sacred,” she said. “We need Republican leaders who remember that fidelity to the Constitution, fidelity to the rule of law — those are the most conservative of conservative principles.”

Given that such a party does not presently exist and that those seeking to keep their seats have failed to live up to their constitutional obligation, dare we give them the reins of power? It’s a contradiction at the heart of her decision to remain a loyal Republican.

Moreover, she waxed eloquently on the need to teach a version of history that emphasizes bravery on the battlefield, leaping from one unblemished hero to the next. It was telling that in her list of things that must be taught, she omitted to mention, for example, the scourge of slavery and racism, playing to conservatives’ unease with teaching the “bad parts” of U.S. history. (Oddly, the only woman in her pantheon of great figures was a Brit, Margaret Thatcher.)

She could have shown real leadership by making a pitch for educating children about our entire history. A party dedicated to truth cannot selectively edit the past. She need not indulge a party that seems determined to ignore the country’s ability to triumph over its faults. Unless one understands the original sin of slavery and the endurance of Jim Crow, it is hard to appreciate the heroism of civil rights leaders or the remarkable patriotism of the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought for “democracy” denied at home. Nor can one understand the magnitude of the achievements of some of Cheney’s own colleagues, past and present (e.g., the late John Lewis, Rep. James E. Clyburn).

Similarly, unless one teaches about sweatshops, child labor and other ills of the industrial revolution, the bravery of union leaders and workers is diminished. The same goes for the loyalty of Americans despite the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and McCarthyism. Heroes without context and adversity are not heroic; America is a lesser country when its penchant for self-examination and self-improvement is forgotten.

The “only the good stuff” version of history also fails to give proper credit to a nation that time and again has risen to the occasion to expand the definition of “we the people” and continues to pursue that more perfect union. Declining to teach about the Know Nothings, the KKK or the Red Scare, for example, makes it harder to grasp where some of our current political charlatans got their playbook and harder still to appreciate the damage they can do to the fabric of our democracy.

An incomplete picture of U.S. history robs us of the critical lesson Cheney wants to teach: America — because it is flawed — has always needed the courage, decency and empathy of ordinary Americans. As Cheney herself recognized, “Institutions do not defend themselves.” An airbrushed version of American history leaves the current generation unaware of their obligations to overcome injustice, hobbling the fight for truth and justice Cheney wants to lead.

History, properly taught, instills in 21st century Americans that they, like their forbearers, must participate in the survival of democracy against malevolent forces antagonistic to American values. Cheney, of all people, should appreciate that and demand the complete and honest telling of the United States’s past.