Dick Cheney, once a villain to Democrats, hailed in surprise Capitol visit to mark Jan. 6 – USA TODAY

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A surprise guest popped up at a Jan. 6  memorial event Thursday, and he turned out to be a prominent Republican: Dick Cheney.

“I am deeply disappointed at the failure of many members of my party to recognize the grave nature of the January 6 attacks and the ongoing threat to our nation,” the former vice president said in a statement after attending a minute of silence ceremony on the House floor.

Cheney, who is also a former congressman, was accompanied by his daughter, Rep. Liz Cheney – the only Republicans to attend the ceremony to mark the violent insurrection of a year ago.

Liz Cheney was one of the ten House Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 riot and is a member of the commission investigating the attack.

Cheney’s appearance – he sat on the front row – excited even Democrats who once condemned him as a power-grabbing, war-mongering vice president.

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The elder Cheney has said little in public about Jan. 6. But his appearance Thursday was a show of support for Liz Cheney’s condemnation of Trump’s role in the attack.

“The importance of January 6th as an historic event cannot be overstated,” he said in his statement. “I was honored and proud to join my daughter on the House floor to recognize this anniversary, to commend the heroic actions of law enforcement that day, and to reaffirm our dedication to the Constitution.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and members of both parties shook hands with Dick Cheney; it was a startling sign of how much American politics has changed since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016.

From Darth Vader to honored guest

Back during the George W. Bush presidency, Cheney became the bete noir of Democrats, who attacked him for promoting oil production, instigating war with Iraq and accruing unprecedented power within the vice president’s office.

As late as 2014, Pelosi criticized Cheney over enhanced interrogation techniques of terrorism suspects that amounted to torture. “I do believe that during the Bush-Cheney administration, that Vice President Cheney set a tone and an attitude for the CIA,” Pelosi told CNN.

Not every Democrat was thrilled by Dick Cheney’s re-appearance. Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, tweeted:

“His central role on Iraq and other post-9/11 disasters sometimes obscures that Dick Cheney is also as responsible as any American for planet-endangering inaction on climate change.”

Some Republicans on social media were also displeased.

A Republican fixture for more than four decades, Cheney served as chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, a congressman from Wyoming (the job Liz Cheney now holds) and defense secretary during the first Gulf War of 1991. He was elected as Bush’s running mate in 2008.

He developed a persona as a hardline conservative, nicknamed “Darth Vader” and famous for staying in secret “undisclosed locations” as a security measure after the 9/11 attacks.

In 2018, Cheney’s career became the subject of a critical film called “Vice.” Christian Bale earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the controversial vice president.

On Thursday, all seemed forgiven, as young and old House Democrats came up to speak with the former vice president.

Liz Cheney, moving through a scrum of reporters with her father at her side, kept up her criticism of Trump and the Republicans who still follow him.

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“I think a party who is enthralled to a cult personality is a party that is dangerous for the country,” Liz Cheney said.

Dick Cheney did not contradict her.

Seeking a surprise, the congresswoman’s office did not announce Dick Cheney’s visit to Capitol Hill. The elder Cheney said he wanted to attend the session to stand beside his daughter.

Both Cheneys took time to chat with reporters. They were also seen admiring the bust of the former vice president that stands in a hallway at the Capitol.

Asked if it was weird to see himself set in stone, Cheney replied: “A little bit.”

On Thursday, Pelosi said members were honored by his presence: “We were very honored by his being there. He has a right to be on the floor as a former member of the House. I was happy to welcome him back, and to congratulate him on the courage.”