In Depth

Peabody Award Winners: Frontline, Kirk Documentary Group, WGBH-Boston, 'Cheney’s Law'

In some 380 interviews since Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Kirk’s “Frontline” documentary team had been hearing tidbits about Vice President Dick Cheney. Finally, they decided it was time to add them all up in what became “Cheney’s Law,” a film that traces the ideological underpinnings of the vice president’s decades-long quest to expand presidential privilege.

The program became the 10th documentary in what Mr. Kirk called “an accidental miniseries” about the George W. Bush administration that his Kirk Documentary Group produced with WGBH’s “Frontline” for PBS. It was also the second about Mr. Cheney, following “The Dark Side,” which looked at the vice president’s battle with CIA Director George Tenet to control the war on terror.

“From Sept. 11 on we’d been making one film after another,” Mr. Kirk said. In interviews for those shows, “We had lots of people telling us little things about Cheney,” he said, which got tucked away as they pondered “why no one knows who this incredibly public figure is.”

Eventually the bits added up to the point where the team felt confident it had enough of an understanding to proceed, Mr. Kirk said.

While the film relies heavily on the observations of numerous veteran Washington reporters, a few key interviews with administration officials give it insider authority. One is with Jack Goldsmith, a law professor who in 2003 became head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. Shortly after taking the post, he says in the film, he began to question some of the legal underpinnings of the White House’s war-on-terror policies.

Landing that interview was a challenge, Mr. Kirk said. Mr. Goldsmith had left the administration for Harvard Law School and was writing a book, but was leery of the press and didn’t return calls or other entreaties.

Finally, producer Jim Gilmore, “out of sheer frustration, knocked on his office door at the law school and Jack opened the door,” said Mr. Kirk.

When the interview—Mr. Goldsmith’s first that dealt with his administration tenure—finally took place, it was in an un-air-conditioned spot in North Carolina, where Mr. Goldsmith was vacationing, and lasted “hours and hours and hours,” Mr. Kirk said. But, he added, “You couldn’t imagine making the film without him.”

Bringing life to complex legal issues and intense battles that took place behind closed doors was another challenge, Mr. Kirk said; his strategy was to “keep paring it down and paring it down and get at its essence.”

But for all the film’s talking heads, the Peabody judges noted the hour “sometimes played like a political thriller,” as it recounts administration officials racing to the hospital one night in a battle to sway the opinion of gravely ill Attorney General John Ashcroft.

One interview the film didn’t have was a current one with the vice president. Although the Bush White House has always been very polite, Mr. Kirk said, it has “never gone along with a single thing we’ve asked for, from the sublime to the ridiculous.” His programs, he said, “use a lot of still photographs,” in lieu of camera footage that the producers are not allowed to get.

After “Cheney’s Law” aired, Lynne Cheney called it one-sided and “a hit job” on her husband. “From my point of view,” Mr. Kirk said, “it made me very happy to know they were discussing the important things we were talking about in our broadcast.”