A sordid tale of the abuse of presidential power by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, an abuse enthusiastically enabled by snooping accountants.
It’s not news, exactly, that the Internal Revenue Service has been asked or ordered to do things beyond the strict terms of its mandate. It’s not news that the IRS has been enthusiastic in expanding its powers and reluctant to account for its activities. Andrew’s contribution in this too long, too slow narrative—cobbled from drafts the late Franklin & Marshall College historian (Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, not reviewed) left behind—is to examine just how systematic the use of the federal tax authority for political (and sometimes personal) reasons has been. Though Kennedy was not the first president to do so, he and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, made widespread use of the IRS in targeting dissident organizations and individuals, many on the extreme right—and for good reason, given that Kennedy, Andrew asserts, had received 34 death threats from right-wingers in Texas in early 1961 alone. Lyndon Johnson expanded the Kennedy IRS’s Ideological Organizations Project to embrace proto-Christian right ventures, such as billionaire H.L. Hunt’s Life Line Foundation and, with the help of intelligence agencies, the antiwar left. But, Andrew shows, it was Richard Nixon who perfected the use of the tax agency as an instrument of political suppression, fulfilling Chief Justice John Marshall’s observation that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” Nixon’s infamous enemies list became an agenda of sorts for the IRS’s since-disbanded Special Service Staff, but the president’s zeal for catching one archenemy, Democratic National Committee chairman Lawrence O’Brien, had unintended consequences; the IRS’s investigations, Andrew writes, brought up uncomfortable evidence of Nixon’s own involvement with “an array of underworld characters and mobsters”—and, Andrew adds, led directly to the Watergate burglary.
Sizzling good stuff such as this, though sometimes buried in detail, will keep many readers moving along through Andrew’s pages. Could it all happen again? Bet on it.