Liz Cheney is a true example of JFK’s ‘Profiles in Courage’

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While watching Congresswoman Liz Cheney so masterfully perform her role as the vice chair for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol, I flashed back 50 years to the day my father gave me a copy of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.”

My father thought Kennedy’s book might appeal to me since I had taken an interest in politics, and he was right. I enjoyed reading it, but as a 17-year-old I didn’t fully understand the historical contexts for some of the people Kennedy profiled. Still, the book has stuck with me all of these years. I trace my admiration of people who show political courage back to that book.

As I watched the hearings, I had a gnawing sense that Cheney’s story of political courage parallels that of one of the people in Kennedy’s book, but couldn’t remember which one. So I bought a new copy (having lost my other) and started rereading it. That’s when I remembered the name of Cheney’s political doppelganger — Sam Houston of Texas.

Mark I. West
Mark I. West

Kennedy recounts Houston’s determination to preserve the Union even though many fellow Texans disagreed with him on this point. Kennedy quotes a speech in which Houston declared, “I call on the friends of the Union from every quarter to come forward like men, and to sacrifice their difference upon the common altar of their country’s good, and to form a bulwark around the Constitution that cannot be shaken. ...They must stand firm to the Union, regardless of all personal consequences.”

When Texas voted for secession in February 1861, then-governor Houston refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the newly formed Confederate States of America and was ousted as governor. Kennedy closes his chapter on Houston by quoting Houston’s outgoing message as governor: “I refuse to take this oath. ...I will not yield those principles which I have fought for.”

Like Houston, Cheney has taken a forceful and principled stand in favor of the preservation of our nation and system of government. Like Houston, Cheney has taken a stand in support of our Constitution and has vowed to protect it.

Like Houston, Cheney has refused to pledge allegiance to a movement that runs counter to the Constitution. In Cheney’s case, she has refused to pledge allegiance to former President Trump and his autocratic approach to governing.

Like Houston, Cheney has experienced political retaliation for standing up for the Constitution and our system of government. In her case, this retaliation resulted in her being ousted from a leadership position in the Republican Party.

Although I disagree with Cheney on many issues, I admire her unwavering dedication to our constitutional democracy. I believe that her political courage matches the courage of the eight people celebrated in Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage.” In particular, her decision to serve on the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol is exactly the type of courageous political act that Kennedy valued.

In 1989, members of the Kennedy family established the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to honor “modern-day elected officials who govern for the greater good, even when it is not in their own interest to do so. The award celebrates individuals who choose the public interest over partisanship — who value principles over political gain.”

The award criteria states that this award “will be made to living Americans who are or were elected officials” and that “the award recognizes a single act of political courage.” The criteria goes on to stipulate that “emphasis will be placed on contemporary acts of political courage.”

Cheney clearly meets all of the criteria for this award, so it is fitting that she was one of five people who received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award on May 22, 2022. I can’t say for sure, but I think if he were still alive Sam Houston would agree.

Mark I. West is a professor in the Department of English at UNC Charlotte where he also holds the position of Bonnie E. Cone Professor in Civic Engagement. He regularly writes about authors and books for the Opinion pages. Email: miwest@uncc.edu.