It's a good bet that when future historians examine the Bush administration, they will spend more time plumbing the mysteries of Vice President Dick Cheney than anyone else.This is, quite simply, because Cheney is the most fascinating figure in it. He is the soul of this administration's relentless pursuit of greater executive power. He is its architect and commander. George Bush became a willing participant when apprised of the effort. Beyond issues like Iraq and tax cuts, this unprecedented assault will be the hallmark of the Bush legacy.
"Cheney's Law," which airs tonight [check your local listings], charts the 30-year saga of Cheney's efforts to expand White House power at the expense of Congress in particular. There is no earthshaking news here, but veteran documentarian Michael Kirk, who wrote, produced, and directed this program, provides a strong superstructure from which to connect the dots in Cheney's defining commitment.
This is a sophisticated program for political junkies and students of government. It provides an insider's view of Cheney's secretive campaign to create an imperial presidency. Kirk has assembled a sharp, knowing group of experts, from former presidential adviser David Gergen to Washington Post crackerjack reporter Bart Gellman, for judgment and informed observation on the story.
Still, "Cheney's Law" is an odd choice to begin the new season of "Frontline" because so much of the ground has been covered before - nowhere better that Kirk's excellent and exhaustive "The Dark Side" about Cheney on "Frontline" last year. So what's left to say?
For many, not much. We already know about Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the shredding of Geneva Convention rules governing treatment of prisoners, the dramatic scene at then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's hospital room.
So a lot of viewers will find what they glean tonight to be incremental. ("Frontline" also has the bad fortune to go up against the Sox at Cleveland tonight.) By the end of this program, many will be praying that "Frontline" will close the book on this guy.
That said, we learn more about David Addington, Cheney's shadowy and powerful legal counsel who has worked seamlessly with Cheney to push his agenda. (With the departure of Scooter Libby, Addington is now Cheney's chief of staff.) A former CIA lawyer, he is, in the words of New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, "the Picasso of signing statements," referring to the documents signed by presidents that negate parts of completed legislation.
Kirk also gives us a clear view of the axis between Cheney/Addington and John Yoo. Yoo was the young Justice Department lawyer whom, according to New York Times reporter Scott Shane, Ashcroft called "Dr. Yes" for his pliancy to accommodate White House demands for legal opinions supporting its actions. It remains altogether unnerving to hear Yoo dismiss the relevance of the Geneva Convention in much the same way someone argues about the right-on-red traffic rule.
Ashcroft is a more complicated case. Legions of civil libertarians despise him for his actions while attorney general. But his detractors may find themselves wondering: Do we have to like him now?
Ashcroft showed great integrity while gravely ill with acute pancreatitis. He held strong in his hospital bed against pressure from White House emissaries Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales for him to reauthorize a statute permitting eavesdropping on Americans by the federal government without a court order.
Jack Goldsmith, who briefly ran the powerful Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department before leaving at the end of Bush's first term, was also there. He recalls Ashcroft, looking ghastly, rising up in his hospital bed and with great clarity explaining to Card and Gonzales why he would not approve the program. "He read them a bit of the riot act," says Goldsmith.
In the end, notes The New Yorker's Mayer, while the Oval Office is traditionally the center of action, "The strange thing about this administration is all of the most crucial decisions seem to be taking place in the vice president's office, or even the vice president's counsel's office."
© 2007 The Boston Globe