We all know what courage looks like. It’s at the core of our favorite stories. It’s central to the plots in most movies and television shows. It’s the backbone of the legends we cherish from history and from daily life.
Political courage is not so familiar. It’s an oxymoron these days, or one of those blue-moon phenomena that only happen when a politician is about to leave office forever. Compromise is a dirty word, and elected officials who stand up for what against a party priority or work across the aisle to get things done face the mortality of their careers.
We saw both kinds of courage in prime time on Thursday night at the first public hearing of the US House selection committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the US Capitol.
US Capitol Police Officer Caroline Edwards was one of two witnesses who testedified to what committee leaders described as a coordinated attack intended to overturn the result of the 2020 presidential election. She suffered a traumatic brain injury when she was knocked down by rioters but continued to do her job trying to defend her fellow officers, the Capitol building and the people she was sworn to protect.
She was not trained for combat, she said, but found herself in a “war scene.” She and her fellow officers were living a nightmare.
“They were bleeding. They were throwing up. I was slipping in people’s blood,” she said, according to the Washington Post. “It was carnage. It was chaos. I can’t even describe what I saw. Never in my wildest dreams did I think as a police officer, I would find myself in the middle of a battle.”
She spotted Officer Brian Sicknick, and realized he was in trouble. She held up a sheet of paper to show how “ghostly” pale he was. She was moving to help him when she was tear-gassed. Sicknick suffered two strokes and died the day after the attack. His longtime partner, Sandra Garza, was in the gallery and was photographed comforting a crying woman sitting next to her. That’s a quiet kind of courage.
So where was the political courage?
Only two Republicans were chosen to serve on the nine-member House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol: Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who is the panel’s vice chair, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois. Cheney and Kinzinger both voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection.
Cheney was unflinching in condemning Trump’s actions that day and calling out her fellow Republicans.
“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone,” Cheney said in an opening statement, according to States Newsroom’s Jacob Fischler. “Your dishonor will remain.”
Cheney said evidence gathered by the committee will show that Trump seemed to agree with supporters who were chanting, “hang Mike Pence,” because the vice president refused to subvert the certification of the election. The president mused, “maybe our supporters have the right idea.”
There are consequences for valuing the truth over party loyalty. House Republicans stripped Cheney of her leadership position for her impeachment vote. Her high profile and leadership on the committee also may take a toll on her chances for reelection – she’s trailing her primary opponent, Politico reported.
Sometimes, even old-fashioned heroism isn’t enough to overcome political loyalty. Congressional Republicans who claim to “back the blue” weren’t in the room to back Officer Edwards and the other Capitol police who bled and died to protect them that day. Fox News refused to live coverage and GOP leaders called the event a sham and a distraction.
I do think House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a mistake in rejecting all of the Republicans’ requests to include Trump apologists on this panel. She should have given Officer Edwards a chance to stand up to the likes of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy or Rep. Jim Jordan. That doesn’t diminish Cheney’s and Kinzinger’s courage for serving.
Democrats have some mavericks of their own. Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and a few others who are standing in the way of the Build Back Better plan and other Biden administration priorities are certainly feeling the heat from frustrated progressives. Some want to question Manchin’s motives but polls in his home state suggest he’s representing his constituents.
Here in Iowa, we saw a vivid demonstration in last week’s primary election of what can happen to those who side with their constituents over the governor. Four incumbent Iowa House Republicans who opposed Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school scholarship plan lost to GOP primary opponents that Reynolds endorsed and conservative interest heavily financed groups.
“I think if I agree with the governor on nine out of ten issues — that tenth issue, if we disagree on it, that should be okay,” Rep. Jon Thorup of Knoxville told Iowa Capital Dispatch. Thorup lost his primary Tuesday to Barb Kniff McCulla, who received Reynolds’ endorsement.
In this country, we used to admire people who refused to cave to peer pressure and mob mentality. Maybe we need more political heroes in our popular culture. Most of the good movies about politicians with a spine were either made or set in the last century.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has worked as both a politician and a movie action hero, told Esquire in 2012: “We must teach the future leaders that political courage is not political suicide.”
The Jan. 6 committee hearings are a fine place to start.