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January 13, 2003
The Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS From Kennedy to Nixon
Joseph J. Thorndike

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Joe Thorndike, Tax Analysts, reviews John A. Andrew's book on how the IRS was used politically by three administrations during the 1960s.

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The Power to Destroy:
The Political Uses of the IRS
From Kennedy to Nixon

Reviewed by Joe Thorndike

    The Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon by John A. Andrew III. Published by Ivan R. Dee, Chicago (2002). Price: $27.50. 385 pages.
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Historians have neglected the Internal Revenue Service. And who can blame them? It's not exactly the stuff of legend. Still, the agency deserves better treatment, if only because it touches the lives of so many Americans. It plays a key role in shaping popular perceptions of government. For that reason alone, we should try to understand it.

John A. Andrew III, a history professor at Franklin and Marshall College, appreciated the importance of this mammoth federal agency, and he set about the daunting task of telling its story -- or at least part of it. Sadly, Andrew died before completing the manuscript, leaving the final preparation to friends and family. But he did accomplish a most vital task: prying historical documents from the unwilling hands of a tight-fisted IRS bureaucracy. Given the agency's pathological penchant for secrecy, it was no small feat.

The Power to Destroy is probably the best book ever written on IRS history. Given the modest competition, that's not saying much. Still, this is good history, to a point; the book is carefully researched, making the most of an incomplete documentary trail. It's also historically informed, reflecting Andrew's sophisticated understanding of 1960s politics and government.

But the book is badly flawed, both in substance and style. Always quick to assume the worst, Andrew fills his evidentiary gaps with hostile supposition; his objectivity seems badly compromised. And while hostility can sometimes make for lively reading (think, for instance, of Robert Caro's relentless but engaging indictment of Lyndon Johnson in his multivolume biography), in this case it did nothing to enliven a very dense analysis. Andrew seems to have sacrificed objectivity for the sake of tedium.

Assuming the Worst

Andrew avoids the temptation that so many other IRS historians have indulged: He does not relentlessly demonize the IRS and its employees. His book is not one of the mindless, anti-IRS screeds that try to pass for historical analysis. This is clearly the work of a professional historian, with all the requisite attention to source material.

But Andrew is not one to cut the IRS much slack. When confronted with incomplete or inconclusive evidence -- a frequent occurrence, given the fragmentary source material -- he generally assumes the worst. Time and again, he takes an uncharitable view of his subject, interpreting documents and statements in the least flattering light.

Despite this critical stance, Andrew often fails to establish important connections. Generally speaking, he demonstrates convincingly that White House aides -- and even a few presidents -- have tried to influence IRS enforcement and investigation efforts. But he offers far less compelling evidence that the IRS routinely complied.

Take Andrew's discussion of exempt organizations. Prompted by White House officials in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the IRS investigated the activities of various nonprofits, with an eye toward revoking their exemptions. The effort focused on conservative organizations but also included a few left-wing groups.

What's striking about the story is not the White House pressure, but rather the IRS's response. Tax exemptions thrust the IRS into dicey territory, forcing staff to make judgments about political organizations. As Andrew demonstrates, this was not a role the IRS welcomed, but agency officials did their best to craft a fair and balanced approach. The IRS emerges from this account as generally well-intentioned.

Andrew chides IRS officials for trying to fend off critics, noting the agency's instinct for protecting itself. That response seems reasonable given the political artillery often trained on the agency. Andrew points out, however, that protectiveness can sometimes shade into whitewash, especially when the agency is under intense scrutiny. There's some truth to that complaint; certainly, not every IRS official has been entirely forthcoming with agency critics over the past 40 years.

Still, Andrew fails to make his most basic case. He does not demonstrate that the agency has been chronically plagued by political malfeasance. Several sorry episodes are well established, including those of the Watergate years. In a few cases, the agency has cooked up its own scandals, with rogue revenue agents pursuing their own agendas. More often than not, however, the White House is the culprit. Andrew generally depicts an embattled agency striving to protect itself from a host of self-interested political opportunists. It almost makes you feel sorry for the IRS.

Almost, but not quite. Sympathy requires some degree of understanding, and the IRS has made that difficult. In describing congressional efforts in 1976 to protect taxpayer information, Andrew neatly encapsulates the problem: "The agency continued to use the IRS code's [sic] disclosure restrictions not to protect the privacy of taxpayers and the integrity of the tax system, which was Congress's intent in writing the legislation, but as a shroud to deny public access to its records and prevent disclosure of its operations."

Admittedly, the IRS has a tough job. As Andrew notes in his discussion of the Watergate investigation, "the IRS tried to walk a narrow line between cooperation, observance of disclosure laws, and self-protection." All too often, however, the agency has done a poor job of walking that line, taking long detours into self-protection at the expense of accountability.

If John Andrew hated the IRS, he might well be forgiven: The agency seems to have resisted his every request for information. His bitter fight with the IRS -- detailed in the introduction -- seems to have left him suspicious of its past and current motives. If the IRS suffers as a result, it has only itself to blame. This is what happens when you make secrecy the touchstone of a bureaucratic culture. Outsiders will always assume the worst, taking the least charitable view of whatever meager evidence they have at their disposal. If IRS officials want fairer treatment at the hands of historians, they'll have to change their attitude toward releasing information.

The Oldies But Goodies

Andrew doesn't tell many new stories, at least not many interesting ones. This ground has been well trod by others, most notably journalist David Burnham and former IRS historian Shelley Davis. Andrew's book suffers somewhat in comparison to the former, if only because Burnham knows how to spin a good yarn. He does somewhat better against Shelley Davis, whose fine defense of good archival practice has since been obscured by her ferocious -- and very personal -- battle with the IRS. (Andrew's book is more balanced than Davis's account. It's worth pointing out, however, that Andrew thanks Davis several times in his footnotes; they clearly shared a legitimate disdain for the IRS's secretive nature and archival ineptitude.)

In contrast to Burnham and Davis, Andrew offers a more scholarly approach to the old chestnuts of IRS abuse, including Operation Leprechaun, Operation Snowball, the Nixon Enemies List, and the Special Services Staff. These are important stories, and the retelling might have been useful had it been less turgid. But sadly, this is no page turner.

These qualities are the literary dark side of Andrew's documentary brilliance. He clearly relished the evidence he managed to pry loose from the IRS. Unfortunately, he also felt compelled to use it all. The text seems to describe every document, even every word of this hard-won paper trail, including the scribbled marginalia on certain items. The analysis is relentlessly empirical, and it can overwhelm the reader.

The Nixon sections are a particular challenge. If you can keep the players straight without a scorecard, then you're doing pretty well. I was lost in the labyrinth, confused by a mind-numbing cast of characters and a complex web of documentary evidence. The book would have profited from a good, opinionated editor -- someone who knows when enough is too much.

That being said, IRS haters will no doubt find this book to be lively bedtime reading; replete with agency horror stories, and bolstered by a wealth of documentary evidence, The Power to Destroy promises to warm the hearts of the agency's worst critics.

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    Joe Thorndike is an associate editorial chief with Tax Analysts.