SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

May 18, 2013

Shribman: Crossing sacred lines

You don’t have to be a member of the tea party to be outraged over the Internal Revenue Service’s special and unwarranted scrutiny of conservative groups. I’m not, and I am.

For four decades liberals have nursed hurts over the Nixon administration’s use of the IRS to intimidate if not punish its political opponents. The very first item in Article II of the House Judiciary Committee resolution impeaching Nixon speaks of “violating the constitutional rights of citizens” and the improper examination of “confidential information contained in income tax returns.”

One thing a second-term president wants to avoid is appearing in the same sentence with the word “Nixon,” and so the IRS forays during the Obama years, combined with the disclosure that the Justice Department obtained phone records of Associated Press reporters and editors, puts the current administration in unusual peril.

Yes, the Nixon comparisons are superficial, and no, history never repeats itself, but yes, last week was a very bad one for President Barack Obama and portends rough weather ahead.

But these twin incursions into well-established rights — violations of the trust and sense of fair-mindedness that government requires, even if politics does not — underline two principles that should be sacred, whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat, whether the timbre of the times is conservative or liberal:

Never mess with the work of an independent press. Never use the taxing authority of the government for political ends.

No two institutions of American governance are more precious and deserving of caution from officials who — and here Republicans and Democrats are equally vulnerable to sin — believe they have reason to deplore the one and abuse the other.

For generations Americans have been served by an independent press, which is one of the political and cultural distinctions of our civic life. And the entire functioning of our government requires that the power to tax — which both Daniel Webster and John Marshall equated in 1819 with the power to destroy — be deployed with antiseptic fairness.

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