“Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. For our everyday life is becoming so saturated with the tremendous power of mass communications that any unpopular or unorthodox course arouses a storm of protests,” wrote then-Sen. John F. Kennedy in Profiles in Courage.
The book portrays eight U.S. senators whose “devotion to principle” led them to defy public opinion and party pressure, in some cases to their political disadvantage. John Quincy Adams’ support for the Louisiana Purchase and the Embargo Act of 1807, for example, put him out of favor with his party and the Massachusetts state legislature chose someone else to fill his Senate seat.
Too bad Kennedy didn’t profile courageous members in the House like Tennessee Congressman Davy Crockett and Montana Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin. Crockett opposed the Indian Removal Act which forced tribes off their historic lands and led to the death of thousands of men, women, and children who died en route to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. The act was popular with Crockett’s constituents who stood to gain access to land and gold mines. They ousted Crockett in the next election.
No sooner had Rankin become the first woman to serve in Congress than she gained the ire of her district by voting against the U.S. entry into World War I. One Helena newspaper called her “a dagger in the hands of the German propagandists, a dupe of the Kaiser, a member of the Hun army in the United States, and a crying schoolgirl.” She lost her next election.
Kennedy couldn’t have known Maryland Congressman Lawrence Hogan. He was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to side with Democrats against President Richard Nixon during Watergate and the only Republican in the committee to vote for all three articles of impeachment. “I lost a lot of friends, supporters and contributions,” Hogan recalled years later. He also lost his race.
Like these leaders, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney will be remembered for having the courage to expose former President Donald Trump and his allies’ complicity in the events of January 6. If not for the work of the January 6 Committee, Americans would not know that top aides told Trump he had lost the election and that claims to the contrary were without merit. Trump and his allies tried to cajole and intimidate elected officials, election workers, and potential committee witnesses. Trump knew some in the crowd had weapons and didn’t care. The former president simply could not accept losing and pushed the deceptive stolen election narrative until a mob breached the Capitol in an effort to overthrow the election.
Cheney has been reviled by GOP members of Congress and officials in the Trump administration who knew Trump lost and yet servilely equivocated whenever a mic was on. They denounce the work of the panel because it reveals the depth of their cowardice.
They aren’t the only politicians cowering before a mob. Spinelessness is a moral defect on both sides of the aisle. When rioters torched city centers in 2020, Democrats responded with unctuous pleading, or worse, craven silence. Gov. Jared Polis and other prominent elected officials have yet to denounce those who vandalize and torched a Colorado pregnancy resource center and spray-painted a church. Perhaps they will find the time after November 8.
What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
It is better to lose with honor and try anew. Crockett and Rankin later returned to the House of Representatives. Adams became president. Hogan won an election to the Prince George’s County Executive Office and lived to see his eldest son become governor in 2015. The impeachment decision cost the senior Hogan dearly, said his son during his second inauguration, “But it earned him something more valuable: a quiet conscience and an honored place in history.”
In an age of pussycats, be a lioness. Keep on, Liz Cheney.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.