Thank you very much, Jack, and thank you to the Kennedy family. Thank you to the board of the Library. Thank you to the nominating committee and the award committee for this Profile In Courage. I just want say a moment first about Rusty Bowers and his family and his story and the grace and the compassion and the courage that they have shown is unmatched and the lesson he gave us tonight and that he has given us throughout is one that as Americans we all benefit and are blessed by. So thank you very much.
I am so honored to be here tonight and honored because of a story in particular that most people don’t know. And that is that on September 25th, 1963, President John F. Kennedy came to Laramie, Wyoming. He was speaking to thousands of students at Laramie that day in the field house. And in that speech, which you can hear online and you can hear in the archives of the Kennedy Library, he told the students, "I hope that all of you who are students here, he said, will recognize the great opportunity that lies before you in this decade and in the decades to come to be of service to our country."
And he went on to explain that the Ancient Greeks defined happiness as the full use of your power along lines of excellence – and told the students who were there that day that there was no more excellent pursuit than service to our country.
One of the students who was there who was sitting high up in the rafters in the packed field house was my dad, 22 year old Dick Cheney. Years later he told me of rushing out the back of the field house to watch President Kennedy’s motorcade pull away. He told me how moving and inspirational it was to see President Kennedy and to hear his call to service. A few months ago, I had the opportunity, I was talking with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and I told him this story and Steny looked at me and he said, "Liz, the same thing happened to me when I was a young student at the University of Maryland."
And if you think about the many millions of young people President Kennedy inspired across our nation – across party lines – to service, people from Dick Cheney to Steny Hoyer – and I am tempted to stop here to say the moral of the story is if you don’t like Dick Cheney’s policies you should blame John Kennedy. But, in all honesty, just think about that expanse – millions of young people that President Kennedy inspired and thinking about his love of history. He was a student of American history, especially.
He talked about in his speeches the great immigration of Puritans who first came to the United States – before it was the United States – trying to escape religious persecution in England. And among those were my family – the first Cheneys who came to here are actually buried not many miles from here in Eliot Burying Ground in Roxbury. They came before 1640 and they came to establish a community that could be “a city on a hill.” A model for the world.
Several generations later, in 1829, my great-great grandfather was born in New Hampshire. Samuel Fletcher Cheney headed west. He settled in Ohio and he enlisted there in the Union Army. He fought in all four years in the Civil War. He was on General Sherman’s March to the Sea. And he was in the Grand Review of Troops that marched up Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. that marched past a reviewing stand where President Johnson and General Grant were seated. Samuel Fletcher Cheney and all those who fought for so many generations have known the price of freedom and they knew that they had to defend it.
I think it is perhaps the greatest blessing of our great nation that citizens in every generation have answered the call to defend our freedom.
I have found myself, especially since January 6th thinking often of my great great grandfather and of the Union he fought to defend. And this was never more true than on the night of January 6 itself.
That night the House returned to the chamber around 9 o’clock. Furniture that had been used as a barricade was still stacked against the walls. The glass in the chamber doors was shattered. Containers that had held gas masks were strewn around. A short time before Congress went back into session, I left the House floor that night and I walked to Statuary Hall. Statuary Hall, as you know, is where the House of Representatives met from 1807 to 1857. In that historic space, there are brass markers on the floor that mark where the desk of Abraham Lincoln sat and where the desk of John Quincy Adams sat. And there are statues of great Americans that line the walls. That night, law enforcement officers in black tactical gear were sitting on the floor, leaning up against the statues, exhausted from the brutal hand-to-hand combat in which they had been engaged for hours. Water bottles – with water they had been drinking and using to wash away the chemical spray deployed by the rioters – littered the floor. These men and women had spent hours battling a violent mob, a mob of our fellow countrymen, attempting to stop the transition of presidential power. For profiles in courage, we need look no farther than those men and women. It is no exaggeration to say that their courage likely saved our lives and our democracy. I tried to thank them, but my words that night seemed inadequate.
As I walked out of statuary hall, I looked above the door. Standing above the door above Statuary Hall is the oldest statue in our Capitol. It is a statue of Clio, the muse of history. Clio rides in the chariot of time and she has a book in her hand in which she takes notes – reminding all of us that our deeds are inscribed in the pages of history.
I walked from Statuary Hall into the Capitol rotunda, the most sacred space in our republic. This is the space where presidents, including President Lincoln and President Kennedy, have lain in state. This is the space watched over by statues of Washington and Jefferson, and Lincoln and Grant, and Eisenhower, and Ford and Reagan. That night, against almost every wall encircling the room were SWAT teams – more men and women in riot gear, helmets, carrying long arms – some resting from battle, others standing watch – ATF, FBI, federal agents – deployed inside the United States Capitol building.
There, in the rotunda, these brave men and women were resting beneath eight paintings that depicit the earliest scenes of our Republic. These include four by George Trumball – scenes from the American Revolution. One of these was painted in 1824 and it depicts George Washington resigning his commission. At this moment in 1793 depicted in the painting, Washington voluntarily relinquished power. He handed control of the Continental Army back to Congress. George Trumball, the painter, called this "one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world." With this noble act, George Washington set the indispensable example of the peaceful transfer of power in our country. This is what President Reagan called, "nothing short of a miracle." This is what President Kennedy called, in his inaugural address, "a celebration of freedom." And this sacred obligation to defend the peaceful transfer of power has been honored by every American president . . . except one.
Standing on the east front of the United States Capitol on a snowy morning in 1961, President Kennedy said:
"In the long history of world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger."
Today, that role is ours as we face a threat we have never faced before — a former president attempting to unravel our constitutional republic. At this moment we must all summon the courage to stand against that. The question for every one of us is in this time of testing, will we do our duty? Will we defend our Constitution? Will we stand for truth? Will we put duty to our oath above partisan politics? Or will we look away from danger, ignore the threat, embrace the lies, and enable the liar?
As we leave here tonight, I ask all of you to remember this sacred duty that has passed to us; to remember that in our republic some things have to matter. The the defense of our republic, the defense of the constitutional foundations of our nation have to matter. In a republic, there are no bystanders, there are no spectators. As citizens, every one of us has a duty to set aside partisan battles and stand together to perpetuate and preserve our great republic.
Ladies and gentleman, we are engaged in a battle we must win, and with courage and clarity and grit, it is a battle we will win.
Thank you all. God bless all of you and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.
"Cheney in Profile In Courage Speech: Every One Has A Duty To Set Aside Partisan Battles And Stand Together To Preserve Our Great Republic." Congresswoman Liz Cheney press release, May 23, 2022. https://cheney.house.gov/2022/05/23/cheney-in-profile-in-courage-speech-every-one-has-a-duty-to-set-aside-partisan-battles-and-stand-together-to-preserve-our-great-republic.