Elizabeth “Liz” Cheney

Colorado College Commencement Address - May 28, 2023

Elizabeth “Liz” Cheney
May 28, 2023— Colorado Springs, Colorado
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During Cheney’s address, some graduating students turned their chairs around to face away from Cheney in protest of her conservative positions on issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights.

[cheers and applause] President Richardson, trustees, faculty, administrators, parents, family members, and class of 2023. Congratulations on this wonderful day. It’s an honor to be here with most of you to celebrate this tremendous accomplishment.

I can honestly say that all of those things that mean the most to me in this world, I owe to Colorado College. My husband, Phil Perry, was the class of 1986, and we have five incredible children, two of whom are Colorado College grads themselves. [applause]

Colorado College is the place where I got my earliest experiences in public advocacy and in coalition building. When I was a student here, we had food service in Bemis, and I had a job bussing tables. That’s how I learned about a genius game that involves taking large white napkins and stuffing them into full glasses of milk. Now, this was genius because when the napkins were submerged they basically became invisible, and that could lead to all sorts of hilarious outcomes. For example, if somebody picked this glass up and drank it, they'd end up with a blob of wet milk napkin on their face. Alternatively, those who were particularly skilled in this game could turn the whole thing upside-down and leave it on the table, ensuring that whoever had to clean up the tables would be dealing with an explosion of milk and gross napkin blob.

Now, after a couple of days of cleaning this up, I got so fed up that I wrote my first-ever op-ed for the Catalyst newspaper. Now, I don't recall exactly what it said, but the general message was basically: Your parents don't go here. Stop being idiots. Clean up after yourselves. So my fellow employees and our bosses in the food service really liked this editorial, so they hung it up on the bulletin board in the dining hall all year. And I felt the power, for the first time, of helping organize and lead the Colorado College anti-milk napkin bomb coalition. [laughter] We were a small but mighty group.

Now, getting ready for this speech, I told my husband, Phil, this story. We've been married for 30 years, but we had never talked about milk bombs. And I need to tell you that although we were both here at CC at the same time, we didn't actually meet until after graduation, which turns out to have been a good thing. Because as I described to Phil my experience of cleaning up these messes, he laughed -- uncomfortably. Now, he claims to have been studying abroad that semester, but I suspect he knows a little more than he is admitting.

In addition to this cleanup duty, it was here at Colorado College that I learned what a liberal arts education is. It was here that I studied our nation's founding. I studied the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and the political philosophy that underpins our freedom. It was here that I first began to think deeply about the rule of law and about what it means to live in a nation of laws. I learned from wonderful professors, like David Finley and Tim Fuller, Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy, and it was here when I was a junior that I received a venture grant, and that enabled me to travel to Northern Kenya to do research at famine relief centers, an experience that shaped the way I think about foreign aid and about America's role in the world.

Now, I know that each of you has your own experiences that will shape where you go and what you do. And I am honored to be here today, not only to celebrate your accomplishments, but also to tell you that our nation and our society have expectations of you. You are the inheritors and the guarantors of our free society. And we need you to preserve it and to leave it better than you have found it.

The first thing we ask of you is that you live in truth. Across the street from where we meet today is one of the oldest buildings on our campus, Palmer Hall. As a political science major, I spent many days in Palmer, and I never walked through the front doors without pausing on the steps to look up at the words inscribed above the entrance: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

Thirty-three years after I left CC, I was represented Wyoming in Congress, and I had been elected as a member of the House Republican leadership. But after the 2020 election, and the attack of January 6th, my fellow Republicans wanted me to lie. They wanted me to say that the 2020 election was stolen, that the attack of January 6th wasn't a big deal, and that Donald Trump wasn't dangerous. I had to choose between lying and losing my position in House leadership.

As I spoke to my colleagues on my last morning as chair of the Republican Conference in May of 2021, I told them that if they wanted a leader who would lie, they should choose someone else. [applause] My final act as chair was to lead our opening prayer that day. And as the House Republicans bowed our heads in the auditorium beneath the Capitol, I prayed that we would know a love and a reverence for freedom. I prayed that we would remember that democratic systems can fray and suddenly unravel, and that when they do, they are gone forever. And I prayed that we would never forget the words carved over Palmer Hall – ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

During those same weeks—[applause]—I received a message from a Gold Star father, a message that is especially important to recall on this Memorial Day weekend. This man, whose son was killed in service to our country, said to me, "Standing up for truth honors all who gave all."

Here is a fundamental fact. America cannot remain a free nation if we abandon the truth. So as you go out to change the world, resolve that you will stand in truth.

The next thing that I want to ask of you today is that you do good and that you be kind to each other. There was a young man named John Hansell who graduated from CC in 1986. John and my husband, Phil, were roommates. John was an incredible, funny, brilliant young man who was a Phi Delt and who played on the CC tennis team. He left CC and went on to Columbia Law School. He was in our wedding.

Ten years after he graduated from CC, John was diagnosed with a brain tumor. When he knew he had little time left to live, he said, “Let's have a party.” Now, many people responded to him by telling him, “That is not what you do when you get news like this. That's really not done.” John said, “I don't care. It's what I want.” He wanted to see all of the people who mattered most to him, and he wanted it to be a time of joy and of love and of laughter. So John had his party, and we all went. And what an incredible gift he gave, a lifelong gift he gave—to each of us. He made us pause. He made us stop and think about love. He let us see the magnificence of life through the eyes of someone who had little time left. Life is glorious. Love and kindness matter. Live by these words of a Quaker missionary: I shall pass this way but once, any good or kindness I can do or show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. So do good and be kind.

As you leave CC—[cheers and applause]—and you head out into the world, I am sure you are thinking about setting goals and making plans to achieve them. And that's important. But you also need to be prepared for opportunities and for obstacles that you don't expect and can't anticipate. Sometimes the path ahead won't be clear. You may find yourself confronting challenges that you could not have imagined with very few allies by your side. And this morning I want to tell you a secret. When the path ahead is obscured and unclear, you can find your way by resolving to do the next right thing. And you will—[applause]—and you will almost always know what that is. There is a small voice inside telling you. It's your conscience. Listen to it.

Resolve to do what is right, even when it's hard, even when you are alone, even when you are afraid, especially when you are afraid. As President Richardson said, that's courage. In describing Great Britain during World War II when the British people stood alone against Hitler, Ronald Reagan said it was a time when the "British Isles were incandescent with courage." Individuals can be that way too. We've seen it in our own history. And we need you to be incandescent with courage.

We are living at a time of testing and challenge and peril for our democracy. Now, I am not here today to talk about politics. But I am here to talk about what makes politics possible, about something far more fundamental. In all course of human history, most people in most places in most times have not lived in freedom. America is an exception. But without a structure, without a legal system that ensures freedom, there is no politics, there's no freedom of expression, assembly, religion, no right to petition your government. Without these rights and a legal system capable of protecting them, without the many other safeguards of our Constitution, there is no political dissent. As Abraham Lincoln warned decades before he became president, we face the prospect of rule by mob violence, of tyranny. The rule of law breaks, and it cannot be remade.

No party, no nation, no people can defend and perpetuate a constitutional republic if they accept leaders who have gone to war with the rule of law, with the democratic process, with the Constitution itself. [applause]

That is the threat that we face today, and the outcome is far from certain. It's easy sometimes to imagine that our country, that our institutions, that our freedoms are self-sustaining. They are not. Each of us must resolve to defend them. You must not assume that someone else will do the work.

If you doubt how important you are, think about this—Cleta Mitchell, an election denier and an advisor to former President Trump, told a gathering of Republicans recently that it is crucially important to make sure that college students don't vote. Those who are trying to unravel the foundations of our republic, who are threatening the rule of law and the sanctity of our elections, know that they can't succeed if you vote. So Class of 2023, get out and vote. [cheers and applause]

And you must do even more. We need you to be engaged and active and thoughtful citizens. That means listening and learning, including from those with whom we disagree. It means running for office. We need you to work to defend our Constitution and to defeat those who deny the sanctity of our elections. We are entrusting our nation -- and the future of our freedom -- to your care.

And I want to say a particular word to the women in the audience today. This country needs more of you in office. You may have noticed that men are pretty much running things these days, and it's not going all that well. [applause] You can change that.

Class of 2023, as you accept your diplomas and walk off stage, you will have earned your education at this tremendous college, and now you must use it.

It's been said that the long arc of history bends toward justice and freedom. That's true, but only if we bend it. This is the responsibility you now carry. Your lives are not scripted for you. You won't be deciding what class to take first block next fall. You must make your lives into what you want them to be. What you dream they can be. And every American must answer this question: How will I serve my country and protect the freedom that is now mine by right?

Now, let me assure you there are endless opportunities you can find or make for yourselves. Fortune may favor the brave, but it also favors the diligent, the steadfast, and the persistent. Those who chase their dreams every day.

You live in a free country. Your life can have a great and noble purpose. Do not stagnate or fall into apathy or inaction. This nation and our world need you. We need you to achieve, to invent, to create, to save us from our many imperfections, to protect our freedom, and yes, to preserve our union.

Class of 2023, go forth, stand in truth, do good, be kind. Always do the next right thing. Be heroes. Be incandescent with courage. Defend our democracy. Love and serve our country. She—and we—have never needed you more.

Thank you. Congratulations to all of you. And God bless America. Thank you. [cheers and applause]

Colorado College. “Colorado College Commencement 2023.” YouTube video, 3:32:15. May 28, 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf6mY-yCny0

Colorado College. 2023. “Liz Cheney Commencement Address.” Retrieved on May 30, 2023, from https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/commencement/resources/2023/liz-cheney.html.