Rogue Knights & Turbulent Priests

“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.

2 thoughts on “Rogue Knights & Turbulent Priests

  1. Jim–I am sorry that you quoted Peggy Noonan–as a young woman she was completely enamored of the charming Ronald Reagan and now she conveniently overlooks the Iran-Contra “scandal”. But more to the point the Supreme Court decision initiated a flood of applications that low-level IRS employees had to deal with. These applications overwhelmed the staff. Put yourself in the shoes of the on-site supervisor getting little or no help from lawyers in Washington. Would you try to triage the overload? Would you simply approve every application because you didn’t have the time or knowledge to make a reasonable decision? Or would you give special attention to the organizations that seemed clearly to be involved in political activity as the most likely applications that needed attention? Do you really take the position that the Tea Party organizations and similarly aligned organizations are not and were not deeply involved in political activity? Unless you do, and I would be incredulous if you do, and given that the IG report specifically states that there is no evidence of a political directive, I find that the notion of an independent counsel to be an over reaction with a political tinge. Incidentally, as with the Apple appearence, the “revelation” is the absudity of the tax code. How does one determine that an organization may hide its donors if it is PRIMARILY a social welfare organization?


    • Disapproving of Noonan because she worked for Reagan is your prerogative, though I’m not sure she overlooks Iran-Contra, one of the scandals I mentioned in observing that we lack a consistent yardstick in knowing what constitutes a scandal worthy of attention.

      Citizens United unleashed a flood of free speech, from a host of organizations on the Left and Right. This pissed Obama off, thus his unprecedented attack on the Supreme Court in his 2010 State of the Union address. If you recall, Obama had such a fund-raising advantage in 2008 that he broke his pledge to depend on public financing. Plenty of money on both sides, distributed through similar organizations. Obama’s speech (one of several) was followed by a number of Democratic politicians sending letters to the IRS, demanding scrutiny of new conservative 501c4 organizatons, in several cases by name. Which they got. The IRS did not start targeting in response to a flood of applications — they started before the trickle became a flood. And they didn’t adopt much more burdensome targeting to deal with a crush of applications. That makes no sense, since the elevated scrutiny dramatically increased, not decreased, their work load. Besides, they targeted only conservative 501c4s, not liberal ones, who sailed through in weeks while the conservatives were held up for years. One conservative group whose application had been long-delayed withdrew it, and prepared a new application with one change — they added the word “Green” to their organization’s name. No other changes. Got approved in weeks. (I’m sure you know that Soros alone has spent tens of millions funding liberal/progressive groups, many of them 501c4s.) Not just held up as organizations, but with their founders subject to harassment from the IRS, the ATF, the DOL, even the FBI.

      By mid-2010, conservative 501c4s found their applications delayed. By early 2011, when the Republicans took over the House, Representatives were asking the IRS what the heck was happening. For years, they were stonewalled. Lois Lerner knew (per the IRS’ own timeline) about the targeting in early 2011, but denied it before Congress until her famous planted question only weeks ago. The targeting proceeded for years and was concealed from Congress.

      I am a conservative in a regulated business. I fear my government, for entirely rational reasons, given this fact pattern. The IRS puts people in jail all the time, and all Federal income taxes are collected under the ultimate threat of incarceration if unpaid. This politically-motivated abuse of government power is, as far as I know, without precedent. (Prior abuses, by Democrats and Republicans from FDR to Eisenhower to Nixon, were always retail, not wholesale.) This is tyranny, plain and simple.

      Who set this policy? Who enforced it? When did the White House know? Where was the supervision? Why was the targeting deliberately concealed from Congress for years? Clearly we will never get accurate answers to any of these questions without a prosecutor with subpeona power, who uses it to find the truth and put the right people behind bars.

      Jack, you are a really bright guy. Imagine this was Nixon, and the organizations were Common Cause, Planned Parenthood, the Center for Policy Studies, the Rainbow Coalition, whatever, and that their officers were being audited individually as well. Would you recognize the tyranny and overreach then?



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