What Nixon knew

May 17, 2013 By Steven R. Peck

IRS impropriety is a serious matter, but be careful in wishing it becomes something bigger

In the 1995 Oliver Stone movie "Nixon," one scene shows the 37th president standing in a smoke-filled room speaking with some Texas oilmen. One of them complains bitterly to Nixon, telling him that he, the oil man, gave a lot of money to Nixon's presidential campaign in 1968, and now he is having trouble getting permission to drill for more oil, or some such problem.

Eventually, the oil man takes a threatening tone with Nixon, saying that if Nixon can't get the EPA off his back (which is not quite the way he put it), then he might withdraw his support for Nixon's re-election.

Finally, Nixon has had enough. Rounding on the wealthy campaign donor, he says that the oilman had best reconsider that threat unless he wants a bigger problem.

To paraphrase in cleaner language, Nixon says "If you think it's bad having the EPA on your back, try the IRS."

Of all the federal agencies in the country, the last one almost any of us would feel comfortable being hassled by would be the Internal Revenue Service.

Richard Nixon knew that full well, and later it was revealed during the Watergate scandal that he frequently used the tax enforcement agency as a weapon of intimidation -- and sometimes outright punishment -- against his political enemies.

It is easy to understand, then, much of the fear and anger being voiced today in conjunction with revelations that the IRS gave special, intense and unwarranted extra scrutiny to certain political groups, known to be sympathetic to conservative causes, that were applying for federal tax-free status.

Opponents of President Barack Obama, of whom there are many with loud voices and full pockets, have pounced on the case. To hear them tell it, Obama was directing this overzealous attention to tea party groups himself, right from the Oval Office.

If that were true, then this would be a scandal of constitutional proportions.

As it is, however, the more likely scenario is that some regional tax official, inundated suddenly with tax-exempt requests from the same kind of applicant, instructed the IRS staff under his control to subject the tea party groups to more stringent examination and regulatory obstacles than he should have.

Some would like nothing better than for this to develop into a Watergate-style scandal for Obama, but that is highly improbable. What is likely to prove of more lasting importance is the reinforcement of the already widespread public perception that the IRS is a bullying, intrusive and insensitive federal agency. Considering that many, and probably most, Americans already agree with that perception to some degree, anything that worsens it is damaging to the IRS and to the nation.

If that is the primary concern here, then it is justified and warranted by the initial evidence. But those who would welcome a sweeping presidential scandal ought to consider the toll that such a thing would exact on the United States.

Clearly, if the evidence were to point to such depths, then the country would have no choice but to see it through and endure the consequences, no matter what they were. But that is a far different thing from actually hoping for such developments, for they would be devastating to the nation -- which must aspire to a climate of stability, confidence and competence in government, regardless of the political divisions of the day.

Given that purpose, those who would relish a disaster in the Oval Office ought to ask themselves if their outrage would be of equal intensity if the improper IRS interference instead had been aimed at, People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian task force, or Amnesty International.

Outrage over the IRS misconduct is warranted, and for now the president and his administration are saying the right things and doing the right things. Time will tell if that continues.

President Obama's administration has been largely free of impropriety, especially when weighed next to the records of his two immediate predecessors. Oddly, there are those among us who wish that weren't so. Whether we are conservative, liberal or centrist, we had best be very, very careful about what we wish for about the collapse of a presidency.

As Americans, we probably ought to have better hopes for our country in mind. And for all our sakes, one hopes this IRS incident is as isolated and correctable as the administration says it is.

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