By George E. Curry
The Obama administration deserves to be richly criticized for surreptitiously obtaining the telephone records of reporters for the Associated Press, especially for bypassing court proceedings that would have allowed executives of the news organizations an opportunity to at least argue against releasing the documents.
It was also wrong to single out conservative organizations for special IRS scrutiny. In case you haven’t noticed, the names of practically all Black professional organizations begin with the word “National.” That’s because most organizations bearing the name “American” – such as the American Bar Association and the American Dental Association – are professional groups that once barred Blacks from membership. That’s why we had to start our “National” organizations. If it’s okay to target conservative groups today, there is nothing to prevent a future president or IRS commissioner from targeting organizations with the word “National” in their name.
Still, the actions of some Obama administration officials should not be compared to Watergate, as was the case on last Sunday’s talk shows.
To refresh your recollection, as many of the Watergate witnesses would say, Watergate is a reference to a series of scandals that began with the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C. and ended with President Richard M. Nixon resigning on August 9, 1974 rather than face certain impeachment.
The five men arrested in connection with the Watergate burglary were linked to Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President. It was later revealed that Nixon had recorded many conversations in the Oval Office that showed that he had knowledge about what his Press Secretary Ron Ziegler labeled “a third-rate burglary” and had attempted to cover-up his involvement. Nixon’s fought to keep the tapes private, but the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that he had to turn them over to government investigators.
Nixon resigned in disgrace and 43 people, including his top White House aides, were sent to prison. Nixon’s successor, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned Nixon, the only U.S. president to resign from office.
Unlike Nixon, President Obama said – and there’s been no evidence presented to contradict him – that he didn’t know about the IRS impropriety until after it had been disclosed in a report by the Treasury Department’s inspector general.
Obama said, “I have now had the opportunity to review the Treasury Department watchdog’s report on its investigation of IRS personnel who improperly targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. And the report’s findings are intolerable and inexcusable. The federal government must conduct itself in a way that’s worthy of the public’s trust, and that’s especially true for the IRS.”
Instead of noting the distinction between Nixon’s role in Watergate and Obama’s non-role in the latest scandals, CBS’ Face The Nation host Bob Schieffer told Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffe on Sunday, “You know, I don’t want to compare this in any way to Watergate. I do not think this is Watergate by any stretch…but I have to tell you that is exactly the approach that the Nixon administration took. They said, ‘These are all second-rate things, we don’t have time for this, we have to devote our time to the people’s business.’ You’re taking exactly the same line that they did.”
Schieffer, who covered Watergate for CBS, should know better. And so should Peggy Noonan, a former White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
On NBC’s Meet The Press, Peggy Noonan defended her May 17 Wall Street Journal column in which she claimed that we “are in the midst of the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.” When host David Gregory pressed her, Noonan said, “This IRS thing is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime.”
But the Boston Globe noted last Friday, “As startling as the reports have been in recent days – from the IRS targeting of conservative groups to the Justice Department seizing phone records of the Associated Press – one Nixonian element so far is missing: There has been no evidence that Obama himself ordered or knew about the actions.”
John Dean, White House counsel during the Nixon administration, told the newspaper, “I find the comparison – that whoever is making the analysis is challenged in their understanding of history.” He said, “There are no comparisons. They’re not comparable with any of the burgeoning scandals.”
The Globe observed, “And Dean is in a position to know. Nearly 41 years ago, Dean was with Nixon in the Oval Office on a Friday afternoon when the president wondered aloud about utilizing the powers of the IRS to target his political opponents.”
Carl Bernstein, one of the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story, told Politico: “In the Nixon White House, we heard the president of the United States on tape saying ‘Use the IRS to get back on our enemies.’ We know a lot about President Obama, and I think the idea that he would want the IRS used for retribution – we have no evidence of any such thing.”
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.