In January, a man named George Gund died in Palm Springs, Calif. Gund was a resident of Lee in Elko County. He provided the funding for the very first Cowboy Poetry Gathering and sat on the board of Elko’s Western Folklife Center.
He also occupied a peculiar niche in history. He was one of three Nevadans on the Nixon enemies lists.
Among his many abuses of his office, President Richard Nixon tried to use the Internal Revenue Service to harass those who opposed his policies.
In July 1969 the IRS created a Special Services Staff to implement Nixon’s orders.
In August 1971 Nixon’s lawyer John Dean created a list of 20 names of people who were to be regarded as enemies of the president and targeted for IRS audits and other persecution. It grew to 200 names and other lists were created by the White House and the SSS, expanding the names into the thousands, adding organizations and even foundations.
The U.S. military, the Justice Department and the Secret Service were drawn into the conspiracy, targeting 2,000 organizations and 4,000 people on the lists. The president himself monitored the operation, once raising the question of whether Jews were on the lists.
For all this effort, there was internal resistance in the IRS against its being used for political purposes and Nixon’s demands for persecution were frustrated. He became angrier and, armed with a re-election mandate, intended to get much more severe.
“We’ll have a chance to get back at them one day,” Nixon told Dean two months before the 1972 election. Fortunately, the Watergate scandal intervened, weakening Nixon and bringing to light the criminal manipulation of the IRS.
Part of the second article of impeachment approved by the U.S. House Judiciary Committee against Nixon dealt with this behavior:
“1. He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavoured to obtain from the Internal Revenue Service, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, confidential information contained in income tax returns for purposes not authorized by law, and to cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
This is more than just ancient history.
The recent disclosures that some IRS workers have been targeting nonprofit groups that criticize the government raise substantial questions and put a spotlight on the behavior of congressional Democrats. There have been liberal leaders around the nation who have been making excuses for the Obama administration, and it is important that Democrats in Congress not take the hint.
There may be innocent reasons for the actions that have been reported. One of the IRS’s functions is to assess the activities of political groups that claim a tax exempt status and judge whether they fall within the threshold to qualify for that status. If that’s all that’s involved, that will likely end it. But there needs to be an open and aggressive congressional inquiry to make that determination. A Nixonian use of the IRS under Barack Obama would be despicable, and the Democrats in Congress need to lead the investigation.
So far, Obama’s fingerprints are not on this matter, certainly not in the way they were under Nixon. The affair may involve only low-level figures in the IRS and may involve proper activities. But the person at the top sets the tone for those below, and it is worth asking why low-level workers would feel free to engage in improper activities, if any.
In normal disputes, members of a party would cut one of their own presidents every possible bit of slack. But Democrats should not be giving the president the benefit of every doubt on a matter this serious. Under Nixon these kinds of activities were far more grave than the Watergate break-in activities. They were toying with fascism. If such activities happened under Obama, they are equally grave.
The other two Nevada members on the Nixon enemies list were Maya Miller and Richard Miller. (Declaration of interest: I was Maya Miller’s press secretary in her 1974 U.S. Senate race.)
Miller got to the heart of the matter when she said in 1974 that enemies lists were the prelude to “the knock on the door.”
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.