The winning defiance of Liz Cheney
When you study the speaking style of Liz Cheney — the unwavering tone of voice even as she is delivering dire warnings about the precariousness of American democracy, the slight forward tilt of her head as she fixes a listener with her gaze, the unhurried cadence in her admonishment of election deniers, even the set of her jaw — it is impossible not to see her father, Dick Cheney. The former vice-president’s mannerisms and style are forever present in his daughter.
On Tuesday, she went to her polling place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with her father, he a stooped man in a blue oxford shirt with a breast-pocket full of pens, she an unbowed legislator in her blue checked shirt, dungarees and espadrilles. She was dressed in a manner that signifies regular folk, but of course, there is nothing common about being part of a political dynasty. And there is nothing average about Jackson Hole, which is in Teton County, which has one of the highest concentrations of wealth in the country. She is exceptional and privileged. But she is a politician, too. Cheney stood in line along with other voters. She chatted and smiled. She faced the cameras and the microphones.
Politicians dress to enhance their narrative and the one that Cheney has been weaving — and continues to tell — is about America at risk and the need for all of us to do something to save it. And so there she was on her fateful primary day dressed like an all-American Every Woman who was dutifully squeezing in a vote between grocery shopping and a video call with the office.
Cheney has been a marvel of defiance as she has refuted the new orthodoxy of the Republican Party, recast patriotism as a feminine virtue rather than an act of machismo, made brutal honesty into a healing salve and blind optimism into a kind of poison. She has a way of delivering sobering news that telegraphs urgency rather than panic. She also has a way of delivering good news and making it sound like a prologue to the apocalypse.
She infuriated the new Republican Party, the one that has pledged its allegiance to former president Donald Trump, traffics in election lies and is laying waste to democratic traditions. As the vice-chairwoman of the January 6 committee, one of only two Republicans on the panel, she has confronted Trump’s allies with facts, and for that she has paid a tremendous political price, forced to wander in the political wilderness where she was befriended by Democrats aghast at right-wing lies while also aghast at their sudden admiration for Cheney.
She ran for re-election in her state’s primary fully realising that she was likely to lose and that winning isn’t everything. That surely counts as a personal victory.
Cheney’s presence in American politics is both gratifying and jarring. Her conservative policy preferences are undeniable. Her voting record traumatises liberals.
On recent boldface agenda items for the Biden Administration, she has been a firm “nay”. To say that she has been a splash of cold water would suggest that her votes have been out of character, a shock to the system. They were de rigueur. The congresswoman has voted no on the American Rescue Plan. She was not one of the handful of Republicans who crossed the aisle to support the infrastructure Bill; she was a no on that. And most recently, she joined fellow Republicans in voting against the Inflation Reduction Act — a marvel of climate change and prescription drug legislation that has so pleased Democrats that they celebrated its likely passage, as well as its actual passage. They partied when the President signed it into law on Tuesday. And they plan to celebrate again in September with a splashy we-did-that extravaganza a few weeks before the midterm elections.
The country at large has heard Cheney speak more this year than it has during her entire career in Congress. On the January 6 committee, she is the counterbalance to chairman Bennie Thompson, the Democrat from Mississippi. He greets the in-person witnesses with a warm hospitality and spools out his opening statements like millions of television viewers have assembled on his front porch. Cheney has the calm detachment of a physician questioning a patient to confirm a diagnosis. There is a flatness to her delivery, as if all the emotion has been carefully skimmed away so that all that remains are the devastating facts. And then, when a hearing finishes, she gives generous hugs to the witnesses.
She has hailed the fearlessness of the women who have come forward to speak the truth about the circumstances surrounding the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. She reeled off the names of Cassidy Hutchinson, Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss, Ruby Freeman and Sarah Matthews, and called them “an inspiration to American women and to American girls”. She could simply have said they were an inspiration to Americans. But she is a traditionalist. Or old-fashioned. Or not liberal.
Cheney defies the clichés so often attached to women in circumstances of stress or pressure. It is the men in her party, her combatants, who give in to hysteria and hyperventilation. They are the ones who see offence at every turn, who swoon when they are challenged, who cannot stand the heat. It’s the former president who issues statements on social media and through e-mail blasts that are mostly exclamation points periodically interrupted with all-caps bleats of oppression. Cheney is not a public complainer about her political fate.
When she is on the job and in her Washington wardrobe, it is the usual unremarkable blazers and dresses. They are as standard as a traditional man's suit in shades of grey or navy. They don’t speak to her distinct personality as much as they help to enshrine a different aesthetic code into the culture when the subject turns to courage, patriotism and defiance. Those ideals are not defined solely by a uniform full of ribbons, a baseball cap-wearing worker waving a flag or a kid in a costume. They are also symbolised by a lady in a jewel-tone sheath.
Cheney has favoured shades of blue during the January 6 hearings. She has worn black. And white, too. And it’s possible to take those colours as representative of a multitude of notions: bipartisanship, sobriety, women’s self-determination. Perhaps that is how some would like to see it: her wardrobe is just another way to rile an already outraged Republican Party. But Cheney is not leading the charge on policy compromises with Democrats. She is not in mourning for America; she is trying to get the patient to take its wounds seriously. And when it comes to abortion, she is fine giving states’ rights precedence over the bodily autonomy of women.
Cheney has staked out political ground that is neither bipartisan nor independent. She is admirable and maddening. She is confounding. And that is a respectable and rare kind of victory.
• Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press