Forgetting Watergate's Lesson

Wednesday, 15 May 2013 04:15 PM

By George Will

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Image: Forgetting Watergate's Lesson
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The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon's administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama's administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities.

This administration aggressively hawked the fiction that the Benghazi attack was just an excessively boisterous movie review. Now we are told that a few wayward souls in Cincinnati, with nary a trace of political purpose, targeted for harassment political groups with "tea party" and "patriot" in their titles.

The Washington Post has reported that the IRS also targeted groups that "criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution." Credit the IRS operatives with understanding who and what threatens the current regime. The Post also reports that harassing inquiries have come from other IRS offices, including Washington.

Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS' behavior "inappropriate." No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the IRS for political purposes is a criminal offense.

It remains to be discovered whether the chief executive is guilty of more than an amazingly convenient failure to superintend the excesses of some executive branch employees beyond the Allegheny Mountains. Meanwhile, file this under "What a tangled web we weave":

The IRS official in charge of the division that makes politically sensitive allocations of tax-exempt status said last Friday that she learned of the targeting of conservatives from news reports. But a draft report by the IRS inspector general says this official was briefed on the matter two years ago.

An emerging liberal narrative is that this tempest is all the Supreme Court's fault: The Citizens United decision — that corporations, particularly nonprofit advocacy groups, have First Amendment rights — so burdened the IRS with making determinations about who deserves tax exempt status that some political innocents in Cincinnati inexplicably decided to begin by rummaging through the affairs of conservatives. Ere long, presumably, they would have gotten around to groups with "progressive" in their titles.

Remember, all campaign "reform" proposals regulate political speech. And all involve the IRS in allocating speech rights.

Liberals, whose unvarying agenda is enlargement of government, suggest, with no sense of cognitive dissonance, that this IRS scandal is nothing more sinister than typical government incompetence. Five days before the IRS story broke, Obama, sermonizing 109 miles northeast of Cincinnati, warned Ohio State graduates about "creeping cynicism" and "voices" that "warn that tyranny is . . . around the corner."

Well.

He stigmatizes as the vice of cynicism what actually is the virtue of skepticism about the myth that the tentacles of the regulatory state are administered by disinterested operatives. And the voices that annoy him are those of the founders.

Time was, progressives like the president 100 years ago, Woodrow Wilson, had the virtue of candor: He explicitly rejected the founders' fears of government. Modern enlightenment, he said, made it safe to concentrate power in Washington, and especially in disinterested executive branch agencies run by autonomous, high-minded experts.

Today, however, progressivism's unambiguous insinuation is that Americans must be minutely regulated because they are so dimwitted they will swallow nonsense. Such as: There was no political motive in the IRS targeting political conservatives.

Episodes like this separate the meritorious liberals from the meretricious. When the IRS story broke, The Washington Post led the paper with it, and, with an institutional memory of Watergate, published a blistering editorial demanding an Obama apology.

The New York Times consigned the story to page 11 (its Page One lead was the umpteenth story about the end of the world being nigh because of global warming). Through Monday, the Times had expressed no editorial thoughts about the IRS. The Times' Monday headline on the matter was: "IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On." So that is the danger.

If Republicans had controlled both houses of Congress in 1973, Nixon would have completed his term. If Democrats controlled both today, the Obama administration's lawlessness would go uninvestigated. Not even divided government is safe government, but it beats the alternative.

George F. Will is one of today's most recognized writers, with more than 450 newspapers, a Newsweek column, and his appearances as a political commentator on ABC. Read more reports from George Will — Click Here Now.

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