In Adam McKay’s satirical Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” the character spends years plotting to render the executive power of the presidency limitless. This concept — dubbed “the unitary executive theory” — paved the way for Cheney’s ability to expand presidential powers beyond congressional oversight after 9/11.
While Cheney himself never responded to his characterization in the movie, the portrayal didn’t go unnoticed by his Republican peers. On Friday, Attorney General William Barr took a bizarre stab at the movie during a lengthy speech to the conservative legal group the Federalist Society. Barr defended his controversial stance that the president is impervious to laws that apply to other citizens, even as Congress engaged in impeachment hearings across town. The attorney general used “Vice” to illustrate what he said was a mischaracterization of the stance. And now, in a statement exclusive to IndieWire, McKay is responding to the claims.
Barr brought up “Vice” early in his speech. “I think some of you may have seen that horrible movie ‘Vice,’ about Vice President Dick Cheney,” he said. “There’s this scene where the young Dick Cheney — he’s young, I think he may have been 36 and he was chief of staff at the White House — he goes in to meet the young Scalia over at the office of legal counsel and they talk about this new nefarious theory that will allow them to take over the world. …In reality, the idea of the unitary executive does not go so much to the breadth of presidential power; rather the idea is that whatever the executive power may be, those powers must be exercised under the president’s supervision.”
The scene in McKay’s screenplay finds Cheney (Christian Bale) asking future Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) to help him figure out how to increase the presidential powers. “I would like to reinstate executive authority,” says Cheney, at the time working for Gerald Ford. Scalia responds: “Have you heard of the theory of the unitary executive? It’s an interpretation a few, like myself, happen to believe, of Article Two of the Constitution that vests the president with absolute executive authority. And I mean absolute.” The movie then cuts to a lion tackling a gazelle as the narrator explains: “Certain legal scholars believe that if the president does anything, it must be legal, because it’s the president,” the man’s voice says. “To hell with checks and balances, especially during times of war. This was the power of kings, pharaohs, dictators.”
In his speech, Barr called the idea of the unitary executive committee “one of the more amusing aspects of modern progressive polemic,” adding that “they portray this as some newfangled theory to justify executive power of sweeping and unfettered scope.”
In an email, McKay told IndieWire that Barr’s argument was all smoke and mirrors. “This is a typical move the modern GOP uses,” McKay said. “Basically, it consists of labeling well-established facts (e.g.: Cheney and his right hand man David Addington were long time practitioners of a radical interpretation of the unitary executive theory) as ‘conspiracy theories’ while at the same time nakedly doing exactly what they’re denying.”
In his speech, Barr also took a stab at Democratic senators for pressing him on the issue during his confirmation process as attorney general earlier this year. “When I was up for nomination, all these Democratic senators were saying how concerned they were about my adherence to the unitary executive theory,” he said. “In reality, the idea of the unitary executive does not go so much to the breadth of presidential power; rather the idea is that whatever the executive power may be, those powers must be exercised under the president’s supervision.”
McKay said that was a double standard. “Notice how Barr scoffs at the idea that the unitary executive will lead to an erosion of Constitutional checks and balances while simultaneously saying that Congress only has limited oversight over the executive branch,” he said. “It’s brazen, but most importantly, it’s confusing. So the idea is activated while giving their base a way to roll their eyes at the notion of the idea being activated. It’s pretty advanced double speak, but it’s intentions are clear: dismantle checks and balances to enable a true Imperial Presidency.”
McKay also emphasized the historical foundation behind the scene in question. “Anyone doubting Cheney’s commitment to a radical interpretation of the unitary executive theory should read his minority statement from the Iran Contra hearings,” McKay said, Especially the part where he — along with Addington, this is when they met — posits that the President should have certain monarchical prerogatives. It’s fairly chilling to read in the context of the current crisis we’re in.”