During the Watergate brouhaha — the real one 40 years ago — I was one of a number of newspaper reporters who received telephone calls from people purporting to be agents of the Internal Revenue Service. I was told I might be subject to an audit of my income taxes so it would be wise to gather together the pertinent records.
It was ridiculous on its face. My entire income was reported on a W2 form, and I had been a stickler for accuracy. At that stage in my career I didn’t even itemize deductions. Nonetheless, the threat shook me up. I didn’t know how I might be vulnerable to a White House occupied by Richard Nixon and his merry men. At the time I didn’t even hire an accountant.
Now we are discovering that the Internal Revenue Service has been bending itself out of shape to use its discretionary authority to punish the Tea Party and other conservative groups who have been challenging Barack Obama politically. This, of course, is the Nixonesque ploy most likely to evoke a hot political response to the Democratic Party, so it is no surprise it has drawn the strongest response — the firing of the acting IRS commissioner.
But surprisingly, today we have an administration whose Justice Department has been subpoeaning the telephone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press in a crude attempt to intimidate the AP in the search for sources of information — meaning leaks. The AP is a special case in the news business. It is jointly owned and operated by almost all news organizations large and small, and is the last news organization that would come to mind as reckless in its methods or partisan in its content.
The assault on the AP is being treated as just another of the three “crises” plaguing the President simultaneously, another classic case on the false equivalency so common in politics and the press.
As for the attempt to bully the AP, the President is behaving as if it is no worse than a bad cold. His response has been an endorsement of a “shield law” to allow reporters to conceal the identity of confidential sources. It is far from clear that a shield law would offer protection against Justice Department pressures of the level this administration seems willing to employ.
The one common element in these three “crises” — those involving the IRS and the AP plus the House Republican attempt to find someone guilty in the case of the Benghazi bombing — is the light they cast on the clumsiness of several branches of government with important responsibility — foreign policy, law enforcement and taxation.
That common element can cause significant problems for Mr. Obama in the final three years of his second term. And it is spreading suspicion among some longtime liberal allies as well as the partisans of the right that he is not capable and perhaps not tough enough to run this complex enterprise.
In purely political terms, the IRS case is the hot item. Politicians inside the White House and Congress recognize that any threat to the taxpayer is far more sensitive than any assault on the press.
But anyone with an ear for politics would realize that there are many Americans who would be uncomfortable with notion of government lawyers arbitrarily seizing the records of reporters who have broken no laws.
If Lyndon Johnson were in the White House today, it is likely there would have been more casualties in both the IRS and the Justice Department.
— Retired from The Sun of Baltimore,
Jack Germond writes from Kabletown