Venturing downstairs at the crack of dawn every weekday morning, my first conscious daily act is to open the front door and hunt for the newspaper. Invariably within a five yard radius of the letter-box, it is pot luck if it is in pristine condition on the path, lying face-down in a puddle in the self-irrigating flower-bed, or sporting a black tyre-mark right across the front page.
Everybody has their set order for reading the newspaper and I am no exception – after a cursory glance at the front page I spread-eagle the broadsheet over the kitchen table and go straight for the bottom of Page 2 – the Obituary. It is the same thing when the Economist arrives – only this time it is the back page (the whole delicious expanse of it).
The discerning Obituary buff will know that obituaries do not come in a one size-fits all format. One day it can be a serial murderer, the next a long-forgotten statesman and the following day a combination of the two. With the Great Reaper inundated over the last few weeks with politicians leaving the world stage – Adolfo Suarez, the former prime minister of Spain (one of my 1970s heroes), Anthony Wedgwood Benn, an off-the-wall British cabinet minister (one of my 1970s bogeymen) and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, former president of Sierra Leone (nice to know Sierra Leone had a government), I was intrigued by a piece a few days ago devoted to Randolph W Thrower who died at the tidy age of exactly 100. Mr Thrower’s main claim to fame was that, for a brief moment in history, he was IRS Commissioner.
Thrower was clearly a decent man. As a young lawyer in Georgia in the late 1930s he defended blacks facing the death penalty on trumped up charges. In a speech on legal ethics towards the end of his life he stated “Every lawyer in the South was not an Atticus Finch of “To Kill a Mocking Bird”, to refer to one blemish of the past”; but he clearly was, and the point was missed by every serially plagiarizing obituary I read.
In his short 18 month tenure as Commissioner he was instrumental in reforms that helped the black community and the poor. However, it was his ouster that won him his place in the New York Times death column. Reminiscent of a recent witch-hunt of political not-for-profit organizations that cost the Acting Commissioner and other senior officials their jobs, Thrower was not comfortable with the pressure coming from the White House to investigate the tax affairs of journalists and politicians. Not being armed with the benefit of hindsight and sure the President would be disturbed by the actions of his staff, he decided to request a personal meeting. Unfortunately for Thrower and – it would later transpire – the entire American people, the President at the time was Richard M. Nixon, himself a lawyer born the same year as the Commissioner, who would not have wasted his valuable time defending innocent blacks in the 1930s when there was far too much work to be done preparing to lynch the entire country. Thrower never got the meeting, but he did receive a personal phone call from John D Ehrlichman firing him.
Those infamous White House Tapes record that, when they were looking for a successor to Thrower, Nixon demanded “I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he is told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, and that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.” Now that is fighting talk (in fact the sort of talk you would expect from gentlemen managed by another very recent deceased – world famous boxing promoter Mickey Duff). King Richard Nixon playing President Richard Plantagenet (try reading the Soliloquy – “Now is the winter of our discontent etc etc” imagining Nixon as Richard III – it works). This was Machiavelli without, as Kennedy pointed out to Ted Sorensen on the night of the 1960 election, any Class.
Evidently, Thrower’s problems with the White House started in 1970 when they sent him G Gordon Liddy as candidate to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “He was a gun nut,” Mr Thrower said. “They wanted me to put a gun nut in charge of guns.” In the event Liddy later had a celebrated short-lived career planning the Watergate break-in. No shots were fired.
If I am not mistaken, whilst in the country whose yoke the Americans shook off a couple of hundred years ago taxes are technically paid to the monarch, in America they belong to the people. Mr Nixon, who was busy at the time creating the Imperial Presidency, evidently lost sight of this, as – to a lesser extent – other executive officers (but perhaps not presidents) have done since. Nixon really did represent just about everything that could go wrong with democracy and it was a remarkable act of courage, tolerance and, perhaps, folly on the part of Bill Clinton to eulogize him at his funeral.
Reading Thrower’s obituaries, another line from that late-life speech of his seemed appropriate. It was a quote from Robert Browning:”Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” As for Nixon, back in 1968 when he was running for the Presidency, both he and the utterly decent Hubert Humphrey made compulsory appearances on the zany show of the day “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” which launched the careers of, among others, a bikini-clad Goldie Hawn. After much debate among his advisers he performed Judy Carne’s weekly catch-phrase. Staring into the camera Tricky Dick exclaimed: “Sock it to me!” More’s the pity one of Mickey Duff ‘s clients didn’t hear his request.
Rest in Peace, Randolph W. Thrower, a man of integrity. The Tax World is indebted to you.