No sooner had I become overwhelmed by the corpulent body of journalism about Liz Cheney as some beacon of moral clarity than I began to feel besieged by dissents about what a wretched opportunist she really is.
Can't she be all of the above?
Not in the America of today. Not in the media of the moment. Either she was underrated in the past or is overrated in the present. She's standing squarely on a bedrock of principle, or she's cunningly maneuvering within a crowd of ambitious Republicans to find a space and a grace all her own.
Over here, she's a martyr; over there, a hack in holy drag. To one set of eyes, this is the end of her political career. To another, it's the beginning of her political legend.
Neither take is correct. And the war between them is the latest and one of the greatest examples of our inability to hold two thoughts at the same time.
For anyone who has spent the past week in a subterranean bunker with no connectivity: Cheney, a member of Congress from Wyoming, is at odds with Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, and other fellow Republicans and on the verge of having them remove her from her leadership position in the House because she has dared to say that the toppled emperor has no cause.
She rightly assigned a significant portion of blame for the storming of the U.S. Capitol to Donald Trump. She rightly voted to impeach him (the second time, not the first). She rightly said that he betrayed his oath of office, disregarded the rule of law, showed contempt for democracy and put the U.S. in grave danger.
And she keeps saying that, most recently in an opinion essay published in the Washington Post on Wednesday that was righteous in its indignation about so many Republicans' fealty to Trump and self-righteous in its characterization of her resistance to that. "History is watching," she wrote, adding that she would summon the requisite bravery "no matter what the short-term political consequences might be."
She could have left it to others to mention that she'll pay a price for her dissent. Plenty of them were already doing that. And the "short-term" was a tell. She's not at all convinced that this isn't the smart long-term play.
She's a character more complicated than most of the reactions to her, just as aspects of her situation are more complicated than much of the commentary about it acknowledges.
For example: Did you know that during Trump's presidency, Cheney, his supposed foil, voted in line with him more frequently than Rep. Elise Stefanik, the New Yorker who's positioning herself to replace Cheney in leadership? It's true. But it gets lost in much of the black-and-white coverage of circumstances that have at least a few stipples of gray.
Also, while Cheney bucked an overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House to impeach Trump early this year, she joined them in voting against his prior impeachment (so many impeachments, so little time!), though he had severely compromised the stature of the U.S. on the world stage and she's supposedly all about that.
Over the past few days, a growing chorus of political observers began to counter the idea that she was so admirable in her adherence to her principles, whether you shared them or not. They questioned the firmness of that adherence and whether certain principles deserve it in the first place.
Those are crucial points. Cheney's overwrought opposition to President Barack Obama — which, as my colleague Charles Blow noted, extended to a minimizing of the so-called birthers — was a gross way to curry Tea Party favor. Her entry into the 2014 Senate race, during which she mounted a primary challenge to Wyoming's incumbent Republican, Mike Enzi, smacked of entitlement.
But what I remember about that candidacy is something that has been strangely forgotten in nearly all of the forensic analyses of Cheney's character recently: her fervently expressed disapproval back then of marriage equality.
That dovetailed with the perspective of most Wyoming Republicans. But it threw her only sibling, Mary Cheney, under the bus. Mary Cheney had come out as lesbian many years earlier, and the sisters' father, Dick Cheney, departed from the views of other Republicans — including the president for whom he worked, George W. Bush — with the wording of the support that he expressed for her. He said that while the federal government should leave the question of marriage equality to each individual state, "freedom means freedom for everyone" and people "ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to."
In 2012, when Mary Cheney married her longtime partner, Heather Poe, with whom she has two children, her father and her mother, Lynne Cheney, put out a statement. "We are delighted that they were able to take advantage of the opportunity to have that relationship recognized," it said. "Mary and Heather and their children are very important and much loved members of our family."
Liz Cheney may well have felt a strong opposition to marriage equality that her parents didn't share. But she could have sidestepped the issue in her 2014 Senate campaign. Instead, she was emphatic, to a degree that compelled her sister to lash out at her on Facebook.
"Liz," Mary Cheney wrote, "this isn't just an issue on which we disagree, you're just wrong — and on the wrong side of history."
Poe added, "Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us. To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive."
There's plenty about Liz Cheney not to love. But that doesn't change the weirdness of some of the complaints about her current conduct. Her Republican foes have been whispering to Washington journalists — and some political analysts have cottoned to the notion — that her sin isn't denouncing Trump's efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election results. It's continuing to denounce them. It's beating a dead horse. Time to move on!
Excuse me? Trump sure as hell hasn't moved on, and the horse in question is the very integrity of American democracy. It's worth beating to an equine pulp.
Her critics say that she's miring the party in the recent past and thus jeopardizing its opportunity to pick up House and Senate seats in next year's midterms. Well, a party that validates Trump's extravagant lies doesn't deserve to gain any ground. When the team is this rotten, there's no fault in contributing to its defeat.
Then there's all the eye rolling over what a self-aggrandizing showboat Cheney is being. If Congress purged all its self-aggrandizing showboats, it would be the loneliest of seas.
It's true, as Cheney's detractors note, that she doesn't stand a chance of out-smarming such Trump sycophants as Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton and that the likeliest crown for her is the Trump-defying one. She's nonetheless gambling with her political future in reaching for it.
And she's saying something that must be said. As the authors of the morning edition of Politico Playbook recently wrote, this "looks like one of those historical hinge moments." Chuck Todd of NBC News called her "the last flickering light" of the conservative movement, which is about to be "snuffed out" by obeisance to Trump and his fictions.
I don't know about "last," but she is pushing back at nothing less than darkness. I'm grateful for that, no matter how else I feel about her.
One friend of mine, a disillusioned former Republican, groused that she and McCarthy were two miserable operators who deserved each other. Perhaps.
But Americans deserve the truth, and Cheney, not McCarthy, is telling it. So she can't be discounted as a villain having a rare good-ethics day, just as she shouldn't be anointed St. Liz. She refuses our tidy categories. How frustrating. How human.
Frank Bruni has been an opinion columnist for the New York Times since 2011.