Vice President Dick Cheney may possess the most picked-apart psyche of any politician since Richard Nixon. Famously secretive, often openly contemptuous of those who do not agree with him, he has been seen by some to have a Faustian relationship with President Bush, and not in the Faust role. The subject of books, pundit commentary, stand-up routines and practically every comic strip save “Family Circus,” Cheney still remains something of a psychological enigma: If he really is calling the shots in the White House, what is it he wants?
In the season premiere of PBS’ “Frontline,” titled “Cheney’s Law,” writer-director-producer Michael Kirk and producer-reporter Jim Gilmore spell it out right up front: For 30 years, Dick Cheney has dedicated himself to expanding the power of the presidency, at the cost of just about everything else, including, it would seem, the Constitution. And in George W. Bush and the post-9/11 anxiety, he found his perfect storm.
When Congress voted down a request for unlimited presidential power in the war against terrorism, Cheney -- the man who told President Reagan he did not need congressional approval to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the first President Bush that he could enter the Gulf War on his own authority -- went directly to the Justice Department. In the Office of the Legal Counsel, he found John Yoo, who was more than happy to draft a memo giving the president authority to do anything to anyone anywhere as long as the nation was at war. Yoo, who is interviewed extensively here, stands by his decision.
“The Justice Department had long thought that Congress cannot limit the commander in chief’s power,” says Yoo, whom U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft came to call Dr. Yes because of his continual acquiescence to the vice president. “The laws as they were written and the Constitution that we have give the president a lot of power.”
There is no breaking news in “Cheney’s Law,” which uses an assortment of journalists and former politicos to narrate the various steps Cheney took to circumvent congressional intervention after 9/11. But having the dots connected so clearly and convincingly is both disturbing and helpful.
Over and over, the report documents, Cheney and his lawyer, David Addington, acted to secure complete power for the president, leading to the alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay, the controversy over surveillance of Americans and the recent Justice Department scandal involving the firing of U.S. attorneys that led to the resignation of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales. The formation of military tribunals was signed by the president after being seen by no one but Cheney and Addington. The definition of torture was rewritten until, as Jane Mayer of the New Yorker says, it became almost impossible to commit the crime. “The only thing that winds up being torture is inflicting pain on someone of an order equivalent of organ failure,” she says.
Former Assistant Atty. Gen. Jack Goldsmith provides the keystone of “Cheney’s Law,” as he explains his dismay when he discovered the administration’s attempt to obtain absolute power at the price of constitutional and international law. Goldsmith, who also chronicled his experiences in the recently published “The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration,” recounts having to gird his loins to inform Cheney and Addington that yes, detainees in Iraq were protected by the Geneva Conventions and so torturing them was illegal. “I was a little unprepared for the vehemence of the reaction,” he says.
Ominous music along with assorted shots of shadowy corridors and Washington in inclement weather underscore the disturbing, and disturbed tone of the commentary. The somber voice of narrator Will Lyman as he catalogs secret memos written and secret orders given presents a picture of a relentless march to what looks alarmingly like a dictatorship. Supporters of the Bush administration may find this heavy-handed and manipulative, but the information relayed appears grim in its particulars and pattern.
Neither Cheney nor Addington agreed to be interviewed by “Frontline,” and so the weight of defending their actions falls to Yoo. Cheney is represented by a few TV clips and photograph after photograph. Never the most photogenic individual in the world, the vice president is often caught looming in the background, his face a study of steady and relentless ambition.
“Gonzales is out, Rove is out and Cheney is ready to fight the next battle tomorrow,” says author Ron Suskind toward the end of the program. “Victory goes not to the swift nor to the strong but to he who endureth until the end. That is a principle that guides this ship of state.”
‘Frontline: Cheney’s Law’
When: 9 to 10 tonight
Rating: Not rated