Today we will unearth all we need to know about the personal income tax truths Mitt Romney is hiding from us -- and the malicious mud Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is slinging at Romney, but spattering us.
To find the real motives behind these two growing Campaign 2012 controversies, we'll enlist the help of two dead presidents. We'll start with one of President Lyndon Johnson's favorite jokes, and finish with one of President Richard Nixon's least favorite press conference questions.
LBJ liked to tell the story about an old Texas congressman who for the first time had an opponent. So he ordered his press secretary to "plant a story in the newspapers that my opponent had sexual relations with a pig." And when the aide asked what proof they had, the old pol roared: "Proof, hell! Just get him to deny it!"
That's just what Nevada's wily Democrat was up to last week. Reid told the Huffington Post about what he said was a telephone call to his office a month ago -- from "a person who invested with Bain Capital (Romney's former firm)." Reid said the caller, whom he won't name, said of Romney: "Harry, he didn't pay any taxes for 10 years." Reid continued, "Now do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain. But obviously he (Romney) can't release those tax returns. How would it look?"
The claim is worse than suspicious. How would an investor know what was in Romney's personal tax returns? Yet Reid's only response to reporters seeking verification is that Romney should release his tax returns. (As in LBJ's old Texas pol's, "Proof hell! Just get him to deny it.")
While Romney insists he paid lots of taxes every year -- he must have a reason for making himself look as though he didn't. He must know his tax returns will reveal things he wants to hide from even loyal fellow Republicans. He's only released his 2010 income tax records (he paid a tax rate of only 13.9 percent of his income) and says he'll release his 2011 when it's done. But presidential candidates of both parties routinely have released many years of tax records. Many Republicans have joined Democrats in calling on Romney to release years of returns.
That brings us to the lesson we learned from a question asked at Nixon's Feb. 25, 1974 news conference.
"Q: Mr. President ... April 21, 1969, was a significant day for you in taxes and for the country, too. That is the notary date on the deed that allowed you to give your papers to the government and pay just token taxes for two years. On that same date, you had a tax reform message in which you said, and I quote: 'Special preferences in the law permit far too many Americans to pay less than their fair share of taxes. Too many others bear too much of the tax burden.' Now, Mr. President, do you think you paid your fair share of taxes?"
Nixon, of course, never answered the specific question -- he just glared at the reporter and listed names of Democrats who he said took the same deduction (never mind that it's illegal for a federal official to disclose individuals' tax records). The real answer to the question (as I knew when I asked it that night) came in the mere asking of it: Nixon never paid his fair share.
That's surely Romney's real failure -- in the best case scenario. He acts like he knows he failed to pay his fair share. Even after the attacks of 9/11, did Romney fail to pay what Americans would all say was his fair share to fund the war against al Qaeda terrorists?
Make no mistake: Because Reid's accusation that he paid no taxes for 10 years would, if true, shatter Romney's candidacy, the Democratic leader's decision to publicize the claim without proof is contemptible. Democrats should insist their party stand for respect to our institutions. They should insist the Senate Ethics Committee consider reprimanding their party's leader for conduct unbecoming the Senate.
But leading Republican officeholders have a major issue of conscience to resolve. They must tell their nominee they cannot actively campaign for a nominee who so disrespects fellow Americans by hiding his taxes. This is a major matter he can no longer hide. It is about our core values as Americans.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)