There is precious little middle ground about Dick Cheney, who is viewed either as a staunch defender of American liberty or the scariest person ever to occupy an executive branch that he has claimed not to be a full-fledged part of. The near-indisputable fact is that Cheney is the most powerful vice president the U.S. has seen and has waged a 30-year campaign to establish the presidency as the dominant arm of government — a point methodically detailed in this “Frontline” documentary, which features several notable interviews, though none with the secretive VP or his top allies, who declined.
Although the producers talk to all the usual journalistic suspects (including Bart Gellman, who worked on the Washington Post’s exhaustive series on Cheney), the most illuminating portions come from former Assistant Attorney General Jack L. Goldsmith.
By failing to serve as a rubber stamp for the objectives of Cheney and his now-chief of staff, David Addington — Goldsmith, who has the look and demeanor of a file clerk, increasingly clashed with the vice president’s office over what he calls “extravagant” claims of presidential power. Through Goldsmith, one draws the clear image of government bureaucrats being overrun by Cheney’s use of the war against terrorism as justification to circumvent the other co-equal branches, at one point prompting 30 Justice Department officials to threaten resigning in protest. Eventually, with Alberto Gonzales becoming attorney general, Cheney had precisely what he wanted — as one observer puts it, “someone they could control.”
For anyone that has followed this story, the hourlong special rehashes a good deal of familiar material. Yet the first few minutes do put the administration’s excesses in helpful context, noting how Cheney chafed against congressional authority while serving in the Ford administration and again as a congressman when Ronald Reagan was president, believing there was nothing wrong with the Iran-Contra arms deal and that the first President Bush didn’t require authorization for the first Gulf War.
Against that backdrop, the events of Sept. 11 merely congealed Cheney’s longstanding views — and provided the opportunity, through his like-minded boss, to exercise them under the rubric of homeland security. “Cheney’s Law” also sheds light on the Addington-championed use of signing statements to indicate that laws curtailing the “unfettered presidency” that Cheney envisions needn’t be followed.
This is, ultimately, the central conflict surrounding Bush’s presidency — at the heart of debate over the propriety and possible illegality of wiretapping, spying, torture and harsh interrogation methods. As for the prospect of having “Frontline” lay out the issues with such clarity softening the administration’s posture, as Jon Stewart is fond of saying, if you entertain such thoughts, then you don’t know Dick.