May 19, 2013
"The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know," said Harry Truman, who made it his task to absorb a lot of it. Many people who have not followed his example are not averse to using what little they do know, with the inadvertent effect of exposing how much they have to learn.
In recent days, those people have triumphantly likened Barack Obama to Richard Nixon, particularly on the misuse of the Internal Revenue Service for political advantage. In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon because, among other reasons, he tried to cause "income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner."
This, of course, is exactly what the IRS now admits doing when it singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny. The Treasury Department's inspector general found "the IRS used inappropriate criteria that identified for review tea party and other organizations applying for tax-exempt status based upon their names or policy positions."
This misconduct happened under the current president. Therefore, Obama = Nixon.
But equating the two is like concluding that babies are like poisonous snakes because some of them have rattles. Maybe information will someday emerge to confirm the conservative suspicion that Obama thuggishly subverted the IRS to win re-election, but so far, it falls in the realm of make-believe.
Here is what the 44th president had to say about how the agency should operate: "Americans have a right to be angry about it, and I'm angry about it. It should not matter what political stripe you're from. The fact of the matter is the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity." Obama said this as he announced the dismissal of the acting commissioner for failing to prevent political abuse.
Here is what the 37th president had to say about how the agency should operate: "Are we looking over the financial contributors to the Democratic National Committee? Are we running their income tax returns? ... We have all this power and we aren't using it. Now, what the Christ is the matter?"
Nixon did not have a fetish for maximizing revenue. The point, a memo from the White House counsel helpfully explained, was to "use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies." On multiple occasions, at the behest of the president or his top aides, the IRS was told to audit individuals whose activities created dissatisfaction in the Oval Office.
The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Lawrence O'Brien, got special attention. One of Nixon's top aides called the commissioner of the IRS and demanded action, hoping to "send him to jail before the elections." Nixon ordered investigations of Democrats who might run against him.
Obama's complaint is that the IRS engaged in unfair treatment of groups that oppose him. Nixon's was that it was reluctant to engage in unfair treatment of those that opposed him.
In 1971, weary of improper pressure, Commissioner Randolph Thrower asked for a meeting with the president to advise him that "the introduction of political influence into the IRS would be very damaging to him and his administration, as well as to the revenue system and the general public interest." Nixon refused to see him.
When another commissioner closed down a unit that was used for political retribution, the president tried repeatedly to fire him — while griping profanely in private that he, as The New York Times paraphrased, "was prissy about legal procedures."
Not that revenge was Nixon's sole mission. "If harassment of 'enemies' was half the White House strategy, the other half was succor for friends," wrote New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas in his book "Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years." When evangelist Billy Graham and actor John Wayne got audit notices, the president demanded that the IRS back off.
In Nixon's mind, using tax agents as political operatives was not only excusable but exemplary. In the case of Obama, there is no evidence that he was aware of the mistreatment of conservative groups — much less that he requested it.
Many of his critics nevertheless claim to detect in him a ruthless mendacity unseen in the White House since 1974. The result of this distortion is to highlight not how much Obama resembles Nixon, but how much they do.
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune's editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman.
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