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Let’s take a break from fake IRS political scandals to consider how the Service handled a real scandal 45 years ago. Randolph W. Thrower was IRS commissioner from 1969 to 1971. The Nixon White House insisted that the IRS audit the president’s enemies. Thrower, a lifelong Republican, refused to do it. According to the Washington Post, he also refused to hire Nixon dirty tricksters John Caulfield and G. Gordon Liddy.
In 1971, Thrower asked to meet with Nixon, believing that the president would be appalled at the attempt to use the nonpartisan agency as a political tool. Instead of a meeting, Nixon aide and future Watergate convict John Erlichman called to tell him he was fired.
After Mr. Thrower was thrown out, Nixon told top aides the kind of IRS commissioner he wanted.
I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends. … Now it's as simple as that. If he isn't, he doesn't get the job. We've got to have somebody like that for a change in this place. (Source: White House tapes as reported by New York Times.)
President Nixon was also disappointed with Thrower’s replacement. After rejecting the highly respected John Nolan on the grounds that he had too much integrity to do the president’s bidding, Nixon picked Johnnie M. Walters, a South Carolina tax lawyer who was an assistant to Attorney General John Mitchell. Walters also turned out to have a stubborn streak of integrity. He put John Dean’s enemies list in a vault and didn’t take it out until the Congressional committee investigating Watergate asked for it.
Nixon complained about Walters too: “A lot of our people come in here and they start sucking around the Georgetown set, all of a sudden they're just as bad as the others.”
There is another possibility, which is that people at the IRS try to do their job—often under difficult conditions—and that flows all the way up to the commissioner (or vice versa).
Thrower died last Thursday at the age of 100. (IRS commissioners seem to be rewarded for their suffering at the hands of opportunistic pols with exceptionally long lives.) According to the Washington Post
A few years after he left his post as IRS commissioner, Mr. Thrower … visited IRS headquarters on business… As word spread that he was in the building, IRS staffers emerged from their offices, spontaneously applauding as Mr. Thrower walked through the halls.
Here’s to IRS Commissioners and their employees, who mostly behave much better than the policymakers who make their jobs impossible.
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Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.