“Will no one rid me of this turbululent priest?”
King Henry II, complaining to his knights about Thomas Becket, Archbisohop of Canterbury
I was a high school student back in 1973 when I first read T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, which concerns the bloody endgame of the dispute between English King Henry II and his close-friend-turned-ecclesiastical-antagonints, Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Channeling the King’s anger, but without explicit orders, four of Henry’s knights murdered the Archbishop, cleaving his head in two with a longsword at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral.
Around that same time (mid-1970s, not mid-12th century), I spent a large part of my summer watching the Watergate hearings on our ancient black and white television. Back then, I was an active Young Democrat and a passionate Nixon-hater. For me, a key moment during the Watergate hearings was when rank-and-file Republicans and party leaders, up to that point determined to defend the sitting Republican President, changed their tune. They were finally forced to recognize that the sort of dirty tricks and fast practice that had been part of American politics for decades could not survive public scrutiny in the television age. The rules had changed, and the crimes committed by Nixon and his agents demanded consequences.
One of the many things Nixon did wrong was to send the IRS after his political enemies, a practice that had been common up until Watergate but has been out of bounds ever since.
Until now. Over the last two weeks, we’ve learned that IRS employees targeted over 500 conservative organizations for a combination of harassment, delay and absurdly-elevated scrutiny. The actions of the IRS Tax-Exempt Division went beyond Nixonian into truly Orwellian territory, including demands for disclosure of donor and volunteer lists, even for information on what Tea Party members thought and how they prayed. Confidential IRS files from conservative groups were leaked to liberal media outlets, and conservative donors and commentators appear to have been singled out for intrusive tax audits, even for FBI and Department of Labor probes.
These are startling abuses of government power. There is no indication that Obama or any of his political appointees ordered any of these acts, though the initial explanation of “two rouge IRS agents in Cincinnati” quickly collapsed. As Henry II understood back in the 12th century, willing an act is different from ordering the act. Peggy Noonan had a wonderful column in The Wall Street Journal last week, arguing that this is the biggest political scandal since Watergate itself. She points out, correctly I think, that Obama and other Democrats made it abundantly clear what they thought of the Tea Party, whether or not anyone directly ordered the IRS to target them. Still, what we know to date says this is not a Presidential scandal, except in a negative sense. (Sins of omission, not commission.)
Since that Watergate summer, it seems that almost every Presidential administration has been engulfed by one scandal or another. I’m no longer sure what constitutes a legitimate scandal, never mind an impeachable offense. Bypassing Congress to arm one side in a civil war? Perjury in a civil rights trial, about a previously-unreported allegation of sexual harassment a decade old? Failing to connect the dots? Connecting dots badly, and making war based on faulty intelligence? Massaging your message about a tragedy for political advantage?
The consistent pattern with all of these scandals has been the partisan nature of the responses. If it happens on your guy’s watch, you circle the wagons, label it a partisan witch hunt, and demand that we get on with the nation’s business. If the serving Chief Executive is from the other team, it is the worst scandal since Watergate.
It would be nice if we could determine an ascertainable standard on what is truly scandal-worthy. But even in the absence of a consistent standard, surely these abuses of power by the IRS would qualify. If we can’t agree that the wholesale targeting of an entire political movement, during a period of high electoral tension, by the Internal Revenue Service, is an offense requiring firings and prosecutions, then there isn’t much else we will agree on either.
The Republic is groaning under a load of hyper-partisanship, and we badly need to find things we can agree upon. If we can’t agree on investigating the IRS, after all the times they’ve investigated law-abiding Americans, we really can’t agree on anything. Time to appoint a special counsel to sort it all out.
And no, I don’t have any opinions to share on Benghazi.