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Opinion Bennie Thompson and Liz Cheney are the Jan. 6 committee’s unusual dynamic duo

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the House Jan. 6 committee's chair, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), its vice chair, during a July hearing. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Reps. Bennie G. Thompson and Liz Cheney have radically different political philosophies and life experiences. But with Thompson as its leader and Cheney as his second-in-command, the House Jan. 6 committee has conducted one of the most impressive congressional investigations the nation has ever seen.

Thompson, 74, is a Black liberal Democrat from Mississippi who grew up during the civil rights movement and remembers how racist Jim Crow repression denied his father the right to vote. Cheney, 56, is a White conservative Republican from Wyoming who grew up in the halls of power with her father serving as a member of Congress and as vice president.

The responsibility of learning and telling the story of the 2021 Capitol insurrection brought these partisan opponents together as chair and vice chair of the Jan. 6 committee. Their separate forewords to the committee’s final report, released Thursday, tell what united these unlikely partners.

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Writes Thompson: “The Capitol’s shining dome, topped with the statue of goddess Freedom, was built partially by the labor of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dark chapters of America’s history are written into the building’s marble, sandstone, and mortar. And yet in the halls and chambers of this building, leaders of courage passed amendments to our Constitution and enacted the laws that banned slavery, guaranteed equal rights under the law, expanded the vote, promoted equality, and moved our country, and her people, forward.”

Writes Cheney: “In April 1861, when Abraham Lincoln issued the first call for volunteers for the Union Army, my great-great grandfather, Samuel Fletcher Cheney, joined the 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He fought through all four years of the Civil War, from Chickamauga to Stones River to Atlanta. ... At the heart of our Republic is the guarantee of the peaceful transfer of power. Members of Congress are reminded of this every day as we pass through the Capitol Rotunda.”

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Both Cheney and Thompson understand the building where they work as an embodiment of our democracy and its long, halting and at times bloody struggle toward a more perfect union. Both refer to the Civil War era, the nation’s second founding. And both lived through a day that involved a sacrilege unseen even in Lincoln’s time: insurrectionists parading the Confederate battle flag across that sacred Rotunda.

This is not to slight the committee’s other members: Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), Elaine G. Luria (D-Va.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). They all did something unnatural for any member of Congress and impossible for quite a few: suppressed their egos to further a common cause.

The traditional format for hearings, in which each committee member gets five minutes to strut and preen, would have been like dosing the country’s water supply with Ambien. Each member had moments in the spotlight and brought perspective, experience and expertise that shaped the panel’s work. But each also sat through entire sessions without uttering a word. And Kinzinger’s patriotism — like Cheney’s — cost him his House seat and halted a promising political career.

The essential dynamic of the hearings, however, was the one-two combination of Thompson and Cheney. Their opening and closing statements at each session did more than demonstrate the committee’s bipartisan bona fides. They established the themes of that day’s presentation and the panel’s overall findings.

Thompson painted the big picture — the threat to our democracy from a violent, marauding mob that overran the Capitol in an attempt to nullify the result of a valid presidential election. Cheney zeroed in on the man responsible, the man who summoned the insurrectionists, fired them up, sent them off and then for more than three hours refused to make any effort to quell their bloody rampage: Donald Trump.

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Cheney’s final statements, especially, were like a prosecutor’s closing argument to the jury. She wasted few words on those who aided and abetted the assault — lawyers Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman and Sidney Powell; leaders of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers; elected officials including even fellow members of Congress. Her laserlike focus was on Trump, on what he did and failed to do, and on his unfitness for any public office, let alone the highest in the land.

The committee’s purpose was not to damage Trump’s political standing or spur the Justice Department to prosecute him, though I hope its work has those effects. The mission was to discover and reveal as much of the truth as possible about an unspeakable day and to find ways to ensure such a thing never happens again.

House Republicans will end the committee’s work but never erase the indelible mark it has made. Thompson, Cheney and their colleagues did their duty. And they did it well.