Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixonby John A. Andrew III
John Andrew’s groundbreaking exploration of one of the most mysterious of all government agencies takes its title from Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous dictum, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Mr. Andrew confirms what many have suspected for a long time: that presidents, political appointees, and bureaucrats have attempted
John Andrew’s groundbreaking exploration of one of the most mysterious of all government agencies takes its title from Chief Justice John Marshall’s famous dictum, “The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Mr. Andrew confirms what many have suspected for a long time: that presidents, political appointees, and bureaucrats have attempted to use the Internal Revenue Service to punish their enemies. The author combed the papers of presidential staff, IRS officials, congressional critics, and the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and petitioned under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain IRS documents. What he discovered was a series of projects and investigations that at times resemble a spy thriller. Beginning with the Kennedy administration’s Ideological Organizations Project, which investigated, intimidated, and challenged the tax-exempt status of right-wing foundations, Mr. Andrew traces the ways Democrats and Republicans alike used the IRS to accomplish political goals during the 1960s and early 1970s. Seemingly innocuous names like Operation Leprechaun and Project Tradewinds, together with an array of intelligence and surveillance activities, formed a pattern of abuse that threatened the foundations of American political culture. In one of the most powerful and sobering passages of the book, Mr. Andrew chronicles the IRS’s Special Service Staff, which carried out activities that were more extensive and intrusive than Nixon’s infamous Enemies Listyet received scant coverage in the media. He also offers important revelations about Nixon’s ties to organized crime through Bebe Rebozo. Power to Destroy is a shocking analysis of how political influence has corrupted the IRS, and how the agency’s own crusade for secrecy hides its operations from public scrutiny, even from congressional committees responsible for overseeing its activities.
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 NationalCommittee 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.
- Dee, Ivan R. Publisher
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University of California at Santa Barbara, Project Muse
Meet the Author
John A. Andrew III died shortly after completing the writing of Power to Destroy. He was professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College and the author of Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society and The Other Side of the Sixties, among other books.
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