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Obama and Nixon: A Historical Perspective

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On October 6, 1971, Nixon ordered Haldeman to have the IRS audit Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler who had transformed the Times from a right wing rag into a universally respected paper by recruiting top journalists from across the nation. Chandler and his very large family were close friends of my family and had spent the summer prior to my father's death running the Colorado River with us. "I want Otis Chandler's income tax," Nixon told Haldeman. Nixon then called his Attorney General and former law partner, John Mitchel, and ordered Mitchel to fire the Los Angeles Director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "The fellow out there in the Immigration Services is a kike by the name of Rosenberg." The President explained to Mitchel, "He is to be out." Fulminating on, Nixon told Mitchel, "I want you to direct the most trusted person you have in the Immigration Service to look at all the activities of the Los Angeles Times... let me explain as a Californian, I know everybody in California hires them... Otis Chandler... I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he is a wetback. Is that clear?" When the Attorney General replied, "Yes, sir." Nixon crowed triumphantly, "We're going after the Chandlers! Every one, individually and collectively, their income taxes... every one of those sons of bitches."

In August of 1972, Edmund Muskie withdrew as George McGovern's Vice Presidential running mate. After my Uncle Ted demurred at McGovern's request that he join the ticket, McGovern recruited another of my uncles, Sargent Shriver. On August 9, Nixon had a meeting with his staff to discuss how to destroy the Democrats. Turning to Haldeman, he asked, "What in the name in of God are we doing on this one? What are we doing about the financial contributors? Now those lists there... are we looking over the financial contributions to the Democratic Committee? Are we running their income tax returns? Is the Justice Department checking to see if there are any anti-trust suits? We have all this power and were not using it. Now what the Christ is the matter? In other words I'm just thinking for example if there is information on Larry O'Brien. What is being done? Who is doing this full-time? What in the name of God are we doing?" Nixon abruptly narrowed his sights on McGovern's top contributor, Henry Kimmelman, and said emphatically, "Scare the sh*t out of him," He repeated the order to Ehrlichman, "Scare the sh*t out of him. Now there are some Jews with the mafia and they are involved with this too!"

George Schultz was now Treasury Secretary. Nixon directed Haldeman to order Schultz to audit Kimmelman. "Everybody thinks George is an honest, decent man," Nixon observed contemptuously. "George has got a fantasy... what's he trying to do say? That you can't play politics with the IRS? Just tell George he should do it." Three days later Nixon had Kimmelman's tax returns as well Larry O'Brien's who had by then agreed to manage McGovern's faltering campaign and whose office would be the target of the Watergate break-in.

On March 12, 1973, even with the erupting Watergate scandal and its related Congressional investigations incinerating his presidency, Nixon was still intent on using the IRS to disable his enemies. That day he asked Haldeman, "What happened to the suggestion that the IRS run audits on all the members of Congress?"

Those who bother to read these historical snippets will find many important departures and only tenuous parallels between the Obama Administration's IRS affair and Richard Nixon's Watergate-era IRS scandal. A principal distinction is the ingredient of direct presidential involvement. President Nixon was the fulcrum, the visionary and the principal conspirator in his various capers to use the IRS as a political weapon. 

Nixon personally directed and persistently harangued his staff to audit, investigate and gather dirt on his enemies for personal purposes. Nixon went to reckless extremes, even punishing IRS agents who refused to participate in his vendetta. A mean-spirited viciousness and his contagious enthusiasm for law breaking were also distinctive Nixon bailiwicks. 

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In contrast, there is no evidence that Obama even knew of the IRS investigations which were presided over by Donald Shulman, a Bush appointee. The most recent evidence indicate that the Tea Party audits resulted not from intentional political targeting of conservatives from the sheer preponderous of Tea Party applications among the hundreds of 501(c)(4) tax exemption requests that deluged a tiny understaffed IRS field office. The 200 demoralized officials, already drowning in tax exemption petitions, also audited several liberal groups including Progress Texas and Sea Shepard. Detailed reporting in Sunday's New York Times indicates that the problem arose because the Cleveland branch is already debilitated and overwhelmed by years of personnel and budget cuts, now aggravated by the sequestration -- and confused by new rules applying to the cascade of political "charities" unleashed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The GOP's comparisons of today's IRS blunders to the Watergate era scandals broadcast a willful blindness toward history.

As to the AP eavesdropping scandal, any spying directed at journalists should set off fire alarms in a democracy. The Associated Press is justified in its outrage at the Justice Department caper. Fear that a reporter's phone may be bugged will inhibit disclosures and discussions with the many secret sources and whistleblowers upon whom journalists rely to keep our democracy transparent and our public informed.

Obama's Justice Department's eavesdropping on the Associated Press, however, is in no way analogous to Nixon era bugging. The Obama eavesdropping was an, unfortunately, legal investigation of national security leaks involving a Nigerian terrorist bomber planning to blow up an American airliner en route from Amsterdam to New York. Nixon's bugging in contrast was illegal and his purposes were political and personal having little or nothing to do with national security.

Many states have "journalist shield" laws that make eavesdropping on reporters illegal and give a limited, but critical privilege to the relationship between journalists and their sources. Obama has long promised to support federal shield legislation. This week, apparently motivated by damage control, he finally asked Senate leaders to produce a federal shield law, a reform that could transform this scandal into a national plus for American democracy. That legislation will require GOP support. Republicans could also work with the White House to find adequate funding and training for the IRS and remedy the morale and governance problems in Cleveland. The big question now, is whether Republicans will sideline genuine reform in their efforts to exploit the "scandal". Republican legislators have apparently been ordered by their leadership to hold scandal-mongering hearings but to stall any legislation for genuine reform. The real scandal is the Republican party's devotion to grandstanding over governance and its preference for slime over substance.

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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is an environmental lawyer and activist in New York. He is one of the few who has also covered election fraud and voter suppression.

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All Presidents could give a S#$t about us by Unkno... by Deborah Dills on Monday, May 20, 2013 at 10:29:57 PM
 You, being so smart, probably think that the... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:15:43 PM
All the presidents have an agenda-and are blood re... by Deborah Dills on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 7:20:59 PM
That you can find common ancestors for presidents ... by BFalcon on Wednesday, May 22, 2013 at 9:38:25 PM
What?... by sbaker on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 12:50:04 PM
Apparently you don't read very carefully.... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:16:46 PM
"In August of 1972, Edmund Muskie withdrew as Geor... by Maxwell on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 1:01:56 PM
The tried and convicted war criminal and torturer ... by Lance Ciepiela on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 2:07:57 PM
"The tried and convicted war criminal and torturer... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:18:20 PM
This is rich. RFK Jr criticizing RN for IRS abuse?... by Bob B on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 9:49:27 PM
Or just don't know the difference?... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:19:07 PM
Unfortunately, many will still fail to see the dif... by BFalcon on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 10:14:10 PM
Great article. The Republicans can always be depen... by Andrew Schettino on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 5:03:41 AM