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Bureaucratic heroes protect us, deserve recognition

In December, we saw those lists published of the people we lost during the year. These are lists that, in journalism’s inimitable way, are nearly always incomplete because they are published before the year has ended.

In December 2013, for instance, Life magazine (which seems to publish everything except magazines) issued a glossy book on the deaths during 2013. It was so premature that it failed to include the most newsmaking passing of the year, that of Nelson Mandala.

These lists usually include officials, celebrities, artists, athletes, the kind of names that attract recognition, plus a few whose names are far from familiar. In 2014, among names like Mickey Rooney, Gabriel García Márquez and Johnny Winter, the lists included Randolph Thrower and Johnnie Walters, two bureaucrats.

I know that as soon as I applied that label, I started losing some readers. Our tolerance for bureaucrats is low, even though their ranks are mostly filled with the people we depend on without ever knowing it. From the voter registration office to the standoff over Cliven Bundy, bureaucrats are mostly people who protect our rights and our money.

We pay so little attention to how our government works that we have no idea they perform this function. We’re mostly concerned about whether they inconvenience us at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Thrower died March 8. Walters died June 24. They were both commissioners of the Internal Revenue Service and they were both heroes.

After Richard Nixon became president, the IRS created an activist organizations committee to use tax records to investigate and audit groups and individuals who opposed Nixon policies. Its name was later changed to the special services staff to conceal its purpose, though the acronym (SSS) was hardly reassuring.

Thrower, a Georgian and former FBI agent who served as commissioner from April 1, 1969, to June 22, 1971, went along with some of Nixon’s behavior for a while but became more and more concerned that the president’s men were running amok and started blocking their actions. He finally asked for a meeting with Nixon so he could warn him.

Thrower wasn’t the only official who assumed that Nixon did not know about the White House horrors being committed in the president’s name. In fact, Nixon was angry that Thrower wouldn’t go along with political use of the IRS. Thrower received a message from the president’s appointments secretary saying that no meeting would be allowed and a phone call from Nixon aide John Ehrlichman telling Thrower that he was through.

According to a White House tape, Nixon then spelled out what he wanted in Thrower’s replacement: “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 … (and) that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Nixon then appointed Johnnie Walters, a former assistant attorney general from South Carolina. White House counsel John W. Dean III furnished Walters with the administration’s enemies lists containing the names of hundreds of people to be targeted for tax probes. They included three Nevadans — Elko County rancher George Gund, Washoe Valley activist Maya Miller and Washoe Valley scientist Richard Miller.

After the lists were disclosed during the Watergate investigations, Maya Miller called them the precursor to “the knock on the door.”

When Walters balked, Dean told him, “The man I work for doesn’t like somebody to say no.” Nixon later told Dean, “Well, he’s going to be out. He’s finished.” Walters served from Aug. 6, 1971, to April 30, 1973.

The traditional argument that, if it can be done to one, it can be done to all certainly applies here. It wasn’t just liberals Nixon went after. For instance, he had the brother and former law partner of right-wing Alabama Gov. George Wallace targeted for audits. It was indiscriminate fascism, and bureaucrats Thrower and Walters stood up against it.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

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