Liz Cheney Was Never Captain Ahab; She Was Chief Brody
A profile in public courage, honor, and integrity.
In an outcome that surprised no one, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was primaried out of general-election contention Tuesday night. The three-term congresswoman lost to one of her 2020-election-denying opponents, Harriet Hageman, who was backed by Donald Trump, Kevin McCarthy, and the GOP establishment.
Cheney has served as her state’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2017, and will leave office in January.
The congresswoman’s political demise had been forecast since early 2021, just a couple of months after she resoundingly won re-election with nearly 70% of the vote (the highest electoral margin of her political career). That’s when, after supporting Donald Trump and nearly all of his political agenda, she became an outspoken critic of the president over his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, and his provocation of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Cheney was one of only ten Republican House members to vote for Trump’s impeachment, earning her scorn among the GOP base, including in the very red, pro-Trump state she represents. That, and her work on the January 6 commitee (aimed at holding the former president accountable for his anti-democratic actions) were met with a huge inner-party backlash. Fellow Republicans stripped her of her leadership position as the third-highest ranking Republican in the House, the Wyoming GOP formally censured her, and she saw her approval ratings precipitously tank.
There’s been a popular meme among members of the MAGA-right, who are currently celebrating Cheney’s election loss. They have been likening Cheney’s perceived vendetta against Trump to that of Captain Ahab, the fictional character from the classic novel, Moby Dick. As you may recall from the story, Ahab famously perishes while seeking hopeless vengeance against the impervious white whale who’d previously bitten off his leg.
As enthusiastic as Trump fans have been about the metaphor, I’ve long seen it as deeply flawed. Cheney’s no Captain Ahab, but she does share a lot in common with a character from another famous ocean-thriller. I’m talking about Chief Martin Brody, the main protagonist (played by actor Roy Scheider) in the movie, Jaws.
Let me explain…
Ahab was driven, to the point of madness, by a need for personal revenge. He had been caused great pain and suffering by the whale, and his ego would not let him live with the defeat. He was willing to needlessly put others in harm for the sole purpose of exacting retribution on the beast.
None of this holds true for Cheney. Her stance against Trump has had nothing to do with personal pain or suffering. The two were political allies for almost four years. She voted for him twice, they campaigned together, she voted for 93% of his legislative positions, and — to my knowledge — they never even had a critical word for each other in public. There was nothing for Cheney to seek personal revenge for, and she of course never lost her mind (unlike a number of her Republican colleagues who joined in with Trump’s efforts to try and overturn the 2020 election).
Starkly different from Ahab, Chief Brody was driven by a noble and duty-bound purpose. He had taken a public oath to serve a cause higher than himself, and he recognized a serious societal threat — one that he himself was reluctant to come to terms with at first: a killer shark had invaded his island’s waters; it had already killed a young woman.
Brody’s constituents (including his colleagues in government), however, didn’t want to hear the truth about the threat. It conflicted with their other interests and priorities, so they effectively treated the threat as if it wasn’t real. Thus, the objectively prudent measures Brody took to address the issue were deemed compulsive, irrational, and not at all in the town’s interest. His stance quickly made him an unpopular figure among the townsfolk and establishment.
This remained true even as the danger escalated. Not even a child being torn apart in front of all to see, and the discovery that the responsible predator was still on the loose (and not going away), earned Brody enough public purchase to effectively do his job and deal with the situation.
Brody’s lone ally, oceanographer Matt Hooper (who I’ll liken to Adam Kinzinger just for grins), was even accused by one condescending politician of substantiating the threat purely for media recognition.
(Charging one with trying to get their name in National Geographic might just be today’s political equivalent of accusing one of trying to become a CNN or MSNBC contributor.)
Hooper had the right take, though — one that would seem to apply to today’s political situation: “I think I am familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this problem until it swims up and bites you in the ass.”
Anyway, Brody and Hooper could have bowed to the pressure, but their consciences and sense of duty wouldn’t allow them to. They instead went rogue, doubling down on efforts with what limited resources and avenues they had. Those efforts may not have been popular with the town, but they were honorable, fell in line with Brody’s oath of office, and were morally and ethically right.
Ultimately — though not before more needless death and chaos — the two were vindicated… as I believe Cheney (and others who stood up to Trump when it mattered) will one day be among Republicans. It may not happen for some time, but I do think it will happen.
For now, in today’s environment, there’s a steep political and professional price to pay for standing on principle, doing the right thing, and defending something far greater than oneself… even when that “something” is the U.S. Constitution and our very system of democracy.
That’s what cost Liz Cheney her career as an elected representative, and what has made her a pariah within her party.
As some may recall, Chief Brody met a similar fate, and for a similar reason, in the inferior (yet still awfully good) sequel, Jaws 2.
But rather than drown her sorrows in booze like the chief did, I suspect Cheney will leave next January, having completed three notable terms in office and her impressive work on the January 6 committee, with her head held high. She took an oath to defend the Constitution, and that’s exactly what she did, displaying a level of patriotism and courage rarely seen in U.S. politics.
Thank you, Rep. Cheney. You’ve served your country well.
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