Men in Sepia
When larger than life Oscar winner Orson Welles was asked why there had been a self-destructive theme running through his career, he replied that he was like the scorpion who begged the frog to carry him across the river on his back. When the frog hesitated, fearing that the scorpion would bite him, the scorpion explained that, were he to bite him, they would both drown. Half way across, of course, the scorpion bit the frog. As they were going under, the frog asked “Why?”. “Because it is my nature”, replied the scorpion.
I realised last week why I am a tax advisor. It is “because it is my nature”. I went with two of my kids to see “Lincoln” and spent much of the, sometimes tedious, two and a half hours practicing one of my oldest hobbies – looking for continuity errors.
I got into this life-long obsession in 1969 when I noticed a modern skyscraper block in a scene from the World War I extravaganza “Oh! What a lovely war”. I eagerly pointed this out to my ever-indulgent grandfather who had participated in the tail end of the First World War and had taken me along to the film for company. He could have said to me there and then: “When (if?) you grow up you are either going to be a tax adviser dedicating your life to finding loopholes in the law or a cynical social misfit, or both.” In the event, he just suggested kindly that I keep my voice down because some of the other patrons were staring disapprovingly at us.
Now, in contrast to that Oscar-winning travesty from 2011:”The Kings Speech” which – while George VI and Logan incontrovertibly existed – galloped roughshod over history, Mr Spielberg seems to have taken his subject quite seriously. With sepia and grey alternating as prime colour and an abundance of talking heads and paucity of action, it gave the impression that the great director was trying to tell it as it was. Well, almost. Having successfully avoided, for a full 140 minutes, that awful melodrama reserved for Egyptian Soap Operas and Hollywood Blockbusters, Spielberg finally succumbed to his Hollywood urges. As Lincoln dropped his gloves on the table and sauntered out of the White House en route to Ford’s Theatre (SPOILER ALERT: if you were off sick the morning they taught American History at High School, the following information could seriously affect your enjoyment of the movie and life in general), the camera focused in on his misty-eyed black servant sadly watching him leave. He was going to the Theatre, for heaven’s sake, not – as far as anyone other than John Wilkes Booth knew – to his own funeral.
My interest in Lincoln perked up when Tommy Lee Jones thundered onto the screen. Fully expecting him to end the film fighting off aliens blitz-bombing the Capitol, I was immediately confused by Thaddeus Stevens’s Republican credentials. There was no way that Al Gore’s college roommate and nominating speaker at the 2000 Democratic Convention was going to play one of Satan’s Own for any amount of Hollywood cash. Of course, this being America (and America being Hollywood), I soon understood that back then the Republicans were the good guys and this old curmudgeon was a super-liberal for his day.
What the movie did not consider important to tell us (possibly because it’s title was “Lincoln” rather than “Stevens”) was that old Thaddeus was one of the most important politicians in US history. As chairman of the quaintly named House Ways and Means Committee, he presided over the birth of two of the most important tax headaches of the American condition.
Taxation of Americans on the basis of citizenship rather than residency, an approach only shared today by Eritrea (whose capital, Asmara likely resembles the DC of Spielberg’s movie) was a civil war atrocity as was the first real US Estate Tax (although, it may be argued, that the atrocity in the latter case has been committed by successive generations of tax advisers).
What is clear is that neither measure has brought in much money to the US Treasury. Expatriate Americans who report their income often have little income tax to pay while expatriate Americans who do not report their income are often turned into unwitting fugitives. Estate Tax (the current version of which dates back to the First World War) nowadays only affects couples with more than $10.5 million in assets on death and people with that kind of spare stardust usually sprinkle it liberally into the hands of tax accountants and lawyers who magically make the problem go away.
An old favourite, the Dynasty Trust, which helped families like the Rockefellers shelter their assets from multi-generational Estate Tax is still around, albeit with less spring in in its generation-skipping step than in John D’s day.
Somebody who might have gone for a Dynasty Trust had he not died a few months before the first Estate Tax came into force in 1862, was the 10th President of the United States, John Tyler. Tyler, who had 15 children, left the White House 16 years before Lincoln took up residence there. The reason I mention him is because, almost beyond belief, as of last year he still had two living grandchildren (one of whom – at around 85 years old – looks remarkably like him).
Apart from that nonsense at the end, Lincoln is, by all accounts, a good film. I am now eagerly awaiting a blockbuster about B-Actor President Ronald Reagan. Whoever directs it will be able to let his or her hair down and use every Hollywood cliché and device in the book without risk of criticism from a discerning public. My beloved grandmother, who did not attend war movies with her husband and grandchild (we also saw “The Charge of The Light Brigade” together), really could not stand Reagan. I can still see her talking with derision about the comment he made to Nancy when he met her as he arrived at the hospital after being shot: “Sorry, honey, I forgot to duck”.
One day the late Reagan may win the Oscar that eluded him in life. It is just that, when they announce “And the winner is…Ronald Reagan” the Academy Award will be for Best Picture rather than Best Actor.