Liz Cheney’s Hollywood ending
Wyoming calls itself “the Cowboy State,” so what better way to put Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) crushing Republican primary defeat in perspective than with two Hollywood westerns, the classic “High Noon” and the less well-known “Lonely Are the Brave.” Both are about defiant, principled individualists willing to take big risks.
In “High Noon,” Hadleyville Marshal Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) learns that outlaws he had put in jail have been pardoned and are on their way to kill him. Despite Kane’s pleas for help, no one in the town, not even his deputy, will stand with him. Kane walks into the main street alone to face the outlaws and (spoiler alert) guns them down with some unexpected help from his Quaker, pacifist wife (played by Grace Kelly, later the princess of Monaco).
“High Noon” became the favorite of American presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, who said “It’s a movie about courage in the face of fear and the guy doing what he thought was right in spite of the fact that it could cost him everything.” That is a good description of Liz Cheney’s self-described quest to “ensure Donald Trump is never anywhere close to the Oval Office ever again.”
Cheney’s primary defeat has resonance in “Lonely Are the Brave,” which is about an old-style, fiercely independent cowboy in the southwest named Jack Burns (played by Kirk Douglas). Jack cuts barbed wire fences, carries no identification and has no address other than where he happens to sleep that night, and wouldn’t live any other way. When his best friend is jailed for helping illegal immigrants (believe it or not, the movie was made in 1962), Jack gets himself arrested so that he can help the friend break out of jail.
But the friend, who has a family, does not want to lead the life of a fugitive, so Jack escapes from jail on his own. On horseback, Jack stays ahead of the pursuing police and an Air Force helicopter in mountains as rugged as he is and escapes into dense forests that stretch to Mexico. But before he can get there (another spoiler alert), he and his horse must cross a highway on a dark, rainswept night. In a tragic confrontation between the Old West and the modern world, they are run down by an eighteen-wheeler.
Liz Cheney is just as out of place in today’s Republican Party (her state’s party refused to recognize her as a Republican) as Jack Burns was in the modern-day West. Their brave independence in an inhospitable environment was their undoing. In an earlier era of the Republican Party, Cheney would not have been alone in taking on a former president who was “practically and morally responsible” for the Jan. 6 insurrection, in the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) (before he voted to acquit Trump of the impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection). In this era, where loyalty to the Republican Party is largely defined by loyalty to a lie, Liz Cheney may be one of the last of her kind.
Perhaps Liz Cheney ultimately will achieve her goal if the House January 6 Select Committee hearings so eroded Trump’s standing that he fails to win the Republican nomination or the general election in 2024; and she likely will retain her national voice. But whatever happens to Trump, Liz Cheney left us an indelible “High Noon” moment.
At the end of the movie, after Marshal Kane has killed the outlaws, the townspeople emerge from hiding. Kane, with contempt for them on his face, throws his tin star into the dirt and leaves town with his wife. During the Jan. 6 hearings, with scorn in her voice, Cheney addressed her fellow Republicans:
“Tonight, I say this to our Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone — but your dishonor will remain.”
Cheney may have met the electoral equivalent of Jack Burns’s fate, but she leaves Congress with Will Kane’s honor.
Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six representatives of bribery. He is working on a book about a 19th century American journalist who investigated the Siberian exile system. Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.