There should have been no real shock over the news that the Internal Revenue Service singled out tea party groups who oppose President Barack Obama's agenda for special scrutiny in deciding whether to grant them tax-exempt status.
After all, the use of the IRS to make trouble for political opponents of presidents has gone on for generations.
"My understanding is this matter is under investigation by the IG at the IRS," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, referring to the inspector general as he responded to the first question at a spirited press briefing on Friday. "The IRS, as you know, is an independent enforcement agency with only two political appointees. The fact of the matter is, what we know about this is of concern, and we certainly find the actions taken, as reported, to be inappropriate."
Upon learning of Carney's remarks, Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa told Newsmax: "I don't believe that at all. Does anyone believe the White House would root out the culprits who ordered such a thing? Or that they are surprised such a culture exists in the IRS?"
"Culture" is the right word for it. Although some were quick to dub the latest abuses "Nixonian" and compare them to the taxman's probe of political foes of President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, the history of the IRS as a political bludgeon is bipartisan and long.
Elliott Roosevelt, one of FDR's sons, freely wrote that "other men's tax returns fascinated Father in the 1930s."
Critics of Roosevelt who faced drawn-out investigations and audits from the IRS included enemies of the president such as Democratic Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana, who denounced the agency on the Senate floor; publisher William Randolph Hearst; the Rev. Charles Coughlin, who had a popular Sunday radio program; and Republican Rep. Hamilton Fish of New York, a conservative who FDR particularly detested because he represented the president's hometown of Hyde Park.
In the late 1930s, the IRS alleged Fish owed $5,000 in back taxes. The congressman fought back in court and, as he recalled in his autobiography, "the case dragged on for several years, costing the government many thousands of dollars as it attempted to make me pay the money, which if I had agreed, would have besmirched my reputation." The IRS lost and conceded a tax refund to Fish of $80.
Beginning with Victor Lasky's "It Didn’t Start with Watergate," numerous authors have chronicled how John F. Kennedy used the IRS under Commissioner Mortimer Caplin to harass political opponents. Both 1960 Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon and his campaign manager Robert Finch were audited in 1961.
In "Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon," author John Andrew III writes the Kennedy administration was interested in "the tax-exempt status of four or five right-wing organizations. … Caplin sent a list of organizations that the agency was auditing to Attorney General Robert Kennedy." Caplin also sent a confidential progress report to White House staffer Myer Feldman in July 1963 and went to the White House to discuss the audits later that month.
Former Republican Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona shared with Newsmax a highly personal story of the Kennedy-era IRS pursuits.
His father, Arizona Republican State Committee Chairman Stephen Shadegg, was a close political adviser to Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose star as a presidential candidate was on the rise in 1963. That same year, Shadegg underwent an exhausting tax audit.
"The audit was serious," the young Shadegg said. His father "had been advised it was now a criminal matter and he should have his attorney with him at the next meeting. That meeting occurred on the morning of Nov. 22, 1963."
John Shadegg noted that his father's secretary did not interrupt the meeting initially, "but when news that President Kennedy had died was released, she told the assembled IRS agents, my father, and his attorney. The room fell silent and, after a long pause and without a word, the agents began closing their notebooks. The lead agent then said: ‘Well, I guess that ends this discussion, doesn't it?’ They proceeded to leave."
Robert Stripling of Midland, Texas, best known as chief investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activities during its investigations into Communist espionage in the U.S. government after World War II, became a Republican and vigorous supporter of Goldwater against fellow Texan Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Following LBJ's re-election, Stripling told this reporter in 1989, "I was one of the first people to be audited." That the president knew who Stripling was is highly likely; the two of them both came to Washington in 1930 to be top aides to Democratic House members from the Lone Star State.
Political opponents of Bill Clinton faced IRS audits in the 1990s. Judicial Watch, which had sued the president over everything from Chinagate to the Paula Jones scandal, faced an audit and was told by senior IRS official Paul Breslan: "What do you expect when you sue the president?"
"There were literally six witnesses in the room when Breslan told us we should have expected an audit," Judicial Watch Chairman Larry Klayman revealed to Newsmax in 2002. "Four of them were lawyers."
With such a history, one should not be surprised that this "independent" agency is, once again, making life a bit more uncomfortable for a president's political enemies.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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