Liz Cheney Commencement Address

As prepared for delivery

May 28, 2023

President Richardson, Trustees, faculty, administrators, parents, family members, and class of 2023. Congratulations on this wonderful day. It is an honor to be here with all of you to celebrate this tremendous accomplishment.

I can honestly say that the things that are most important to me in this world, I have because of Colorado College.  My husband, Phil Perry, class of ’86, and our five incredible children, two of whom are CC grads themselves.  CC is a most special place for me.

Colorado College is where I got my earliest experiences in public advocacy and 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 someone invented that involved stuffing large white paper napkins into full glasses of milk. When submerged in the milk, the napkins became essentially invisible, and this could result in all kinds of hilarity. If, for example, someone mistakenly drank this concoction, they’d end up with a blob of wet milk napkin on their face.  Alternatively, those who were especially skilled could turn the whole thing upside down and leave it on the table, ensuring that whoever cleaned the table would be dealing with an explosion of milk and gross napkin blob.

After a couple days cleaning up these milk napkin bombs, I got so fed up I wrote my first ever Op-Ed.  It was published in the Catalyst. I don’t recall precisely what it said, but the message was basically, your parents don’t go here. Stop being idiots. Clean up after yourselves.

Well, my fellow employees and our bosses in the food service really liked the editorial, and they hung it on the bulletin board in the dining hall all year.  And I felt the power of helping organize and lead the campus anti-milk napkin bomb coalition. We were a small but mighty group.

Getting ready for this speech, I told Phil this story.  We’ve been married for thirty years but somehow had never discussed the milk bombs. I should tell you that, although we were both here at CC at the same time, we didn’t meet until after graduation, which it turns out was probably a good thing.  As I described to him my experience cleaning up these messes, he laughed … uncomfortably.  He claims he was studying abroad that semester, but I think he knows more than he is admitting.   

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

I know each of you has had your own experiences that will shape where you go and what you do.  I’m honored to be here with you 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 guarantors of this 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 the truth.  Across the street from where we meet today stands one of the oldest buildings on campus, Palmer Hall. As a political science major, I spent many days in Palmer. I never walked through the front doors without pausing on the front steps to look up at the words inscribed at the entrance: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

Over three decades later, I was representing Wyoming in Congress, and I had been elected as a member of 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 the 2020 election was stolen, the attack of January 6th wasn’t a big deal, and 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, I told them that if they wanted a leader who would lie, they should choose someone else.  My final act as chair was to lead our opening prayer that day. As we bowed our heads in the auditorium beneath the Capitol, I prayed that we would know a love and reverence for freedom, that we would remember that democratic systems can fray and suddenly unravel and that when they do, they are gone forever. And that we would never forget the words carved over Palmer – Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

During those same weeks, 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.” 

It is a fundamental fact - we cannot remain a free nation if we abandon the truth.  As you go out to change the world, resolve to stand in truth. 

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

10 years after graduating 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 this by telling him, “That’s not what you do when you get news like this,” or “ That really isn’t done. “ John said, I don’t care. That’s what I want.  He wanted to see all the people who mattered most to him and he wanted it to be a time of joy and love and laughter. So John had his party, and we all went.  And what an incredible 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. So remember these words of a Quaker missionary, “I shall pass this way but once, any good that I can do or any kindness I can 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.” Do good and be kind.

As you leave CC, and head out into the world, I’m sure you are thinking about setting goals and making plans to achieve them, and that is important. But you also need to be prepared for opportunities and obstacles you don’t expect and can’t anticipate.  Sometimes the path ahead will not be clear.   You may find yourself confronting challenges you couldn’t have imagined with few allies by your side. I will pass on to you this 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 almost always know what that right thing 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’re afraid.  That’s courage.  In describing Great Britain during the Second World War, 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. We need you to be incandescent with courage. 

We are living at a time of testing and challenge and peril for our democracy.  I am not here today to talk about politics.  But I am here to talk about what makes politics possible, something far more fundamental.  In all the 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, a legal system that ensures freedom, there is no politics, no freedom of expression, assembly, religion, or any 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 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 peaceful transfer of power, with the Constitution itself.

This is the threat we face today. And the outcome is far from certain.  It is easy sometimes to imagine that our nation, that our institutions, that our freedoms are self-sustaining.  They aren’t. Each of us must resolve to defend them. You must not assume someone else will do the work.

 If you doubt how important you are, think about this -- Cleta Mitchell, a political operative and an election denier, told a gathering of Republicans recently that it’s crucially important that they 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 elections know they cannot succeed if you vote. So, class of 2023, get out and vote.

And you must do even more. We need you to be engaged, active and thoughtful citizens.  This means listening and learning, including—especially—from those with whom we disagree.  This means running for office.  We need you to work to defend our Constitution and defeat those who deny the sanctity of our elections.  We are entrusting our nation – and the future of 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 really going all that well.   You can change that.

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

It has been said that the long arc of history bends toward justice and freedom – that is true, but only if we make it bend.  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.

Let me assure you that 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 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 and invent, to create. To save us from our many imperfections. To protect our freedom. To preserve our union.

Class of 2023, go forth. Stand in truth. Do good and 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 you all.

Report an issue - Last updated: 05/28/2023