Does the Internal Revenue Service scandal conjure “unpleasant echoes” of Richard Nixon?
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee said last week that it did. So did a host of other GOP critics, who linked the recent targeting of conservative groups by the IRS to Nixon’s use of the agency as a weapon against his “enemies list.”
Liberals quickly replied that President Obama had pledged to root out political bias from the IRS, offering his full cooperation in the ongoing investigation. And whereas Nixon expressly ordered the IRS to harass his foes, there’s still no evidence that Mr. Obama himself even knew about the IRS practice until media outlets reported it.
But both sides are ignoring the sordid politicization of the IRS before Richard Nixon, when Democrats – not Republicans – were in power. Despite what you may have heard, no single party owns an historical monopoly on IRS-related sleaze. And that’s precisely why we all need to be vigilant in guarding against it.
Start with the “Ideological Organizations Project” designed in the early 1960s under John F. Kennedy, who worried that right-wing organizations were undermining American democracy. So Kennedy’s aides ordered IRS audits of them.
Like the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, some of the targeted groups trafficked in paranoid conspiracy theories; the Birchers famously claimed that Dwight D. Eisenhower – Kennedy’s Republican predecessor – was a secret communist. But others were investigated simply because they opposed taxes, labor unions, and government regulation of business.
After Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon B. Johnson continued to target right-wingers via the IRS. But conservatives struck back after the agency revoked the tax exemption of Billy James Hargis, a fundamentalist Evangelical minister who railed against “liberalism and communism.”
In an almost exact echo of tea party accusations today, one Florida paper charged the IRS with imposing “liberal dictatorship.” Meanwhile, conservative columnist William F. Buckley worried that an IRS controlled by liberals would inevitably target conservatives. “The trouble with policing tax-exempt organizations is that it simply cannot be done with justice,” Buckley wrote in 1964.
During these same years, however, the supposedly “liberal” IRS also assisted the Federal Bureau of Investigation in harassing civil rights and antiwar organizations. At the request of the FBI, the IRS audited Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Leadership Christian Conference. It also investigated Students for a Democratic Society, passing lists of SDS contributors to the FBI.
The IRS continued these activities under Richard Nixon, establishing a so-called “Special Service Staff” to gather intelligence on “subversive” groups. African-Americans drew particular attention from the new unit, which provided helpful hints for identifying the most radical ones.
“Most members of the black power groups manifest a natural ‘African bush’ type haircut or style,” a 1969 Special Service Staff report explained. “Some of the more extroverted may, at times, wear Central African-type raiments consisting of flowing colorful robes.”
In the White House, meanwhile, Nixon ordered audits on Democratic politicians, journalists, and actors. He also reorganized the IRS itself, under a new – and loyal – director. “I want to be sure," Nixon said, that he is "ruthless", that he will do what he’s told [and] that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”
Even after the IRS shake-up, though, Nixon remained dissatisfied. “[A]re we looking over McGovern’s financial contributors?” he asked an aide during his 1972 bid for re-election, when Nixon defeated George McGovern. “We have all this power, and we aren’t using it.” Nixon believed that the IRS balked at following his directives because it was “full of Jews.”
Two years later, at the height of the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s use of the IRS as a political weapon would generate one of the articles of impeachment against him. Nixon “endeavored to…cause…income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner,” the article charged.
Thus far, there’s no evidence that Obama – or any of his aides – engaged in any such malfeasance. But that hasn’t stopped people from asking him how this scandal measures up next to the ones that surrounded Nixon. “I’ll let you guys engage in those comparisons,” Obama told a news conference last week. “You can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions.”
The history shouldn’t start – or end – with Richard Nixon. Instead, Americans should use this moment to remind themselves that Democrats and Republicans alike have tried to use the IRS to serve their own political ends. The real question, as William F. Buckley foresaw, is whether the IRS can render its judgments with justice. Both parties should join hands to ensure that it does.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).