by Jules Witcover

Who would have thought after all these years that the Republicans would turn to Richard Nixon for political advantage?

That's what GOP congressmen appear to be doing in their current effort to equate the Obama administration's IRS scandal with the vindictive behavior of our most disgraced president four decades ago.

In the poisonous political atmosphere of the Watergate affair, minimized then by the Republicans as a "third-rate burglary" of the Democratic National Committee headquarters, Nixon took specific aim at critics in the news media and politics who dared to question his activities and politics.

He had underlings draw up an "enemies list" that included about 60 reporters and commentators to be cold-shouldered by his administration or worse, including what turned out to be some retaliatory audits by the IRS of their income-tax returns.

As a reporter covering Nixon in those days, I was disappointed not to have been honored by inclusion on the list that came to public light. Nevertheless, when I wrote a somewhat critical book about Nixon's political resurrection in 1968, I was audited for the first time, for reasons the IRS was unable adequately to explain.

One of my best sources for the book in the Nixon administration, based in Europe, got a call from the White House after I mentioned his name in a television interview, ordering him not to speak with me again. Nothing damaging was found in my tax return, but I was obliged to spend days gathering supporting evidence in support of its contents.

The incident came back to mind the other day in the context of the latest IRS scandal. The chairman of a House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers, Republican of Kentucky, made mention in a hearing of an "enemies list out of the White House ... that rivals that of another president some time ago."

Rogers said the IRS examiners were "engaged in shutting down or trying to shut down the conservative political viewpoint across the country," referring to the targeting of the IRS office in Cincinnati of tea party and other groups seeking tax-exemption status as social-welfare providers.

In doing so, Rogers was taking a giant leap from that regional office into the White House while offering no evidence of presidential involvement, which the IRS inspector general testified he did not find. The allegation was a far cry from Nixon's personal fingering of critics he didn't like and sought retribution against.

Other leading congressional Republicans -- most notably House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California, the party's point man in focusing attention on the Obama administration's failure to respond to last year's terrorist attack on the U.S. station in Benghazi -- have been quick to make the purported link to the Watergate era.

On CNN, Issa called the White House press secretary "a paid liar" for denying White House involvement in the targeting of conservative applicants for the tax exemption. He called it "a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters" and vowed "we're getting to proving it."

Without putting too fine a point on the promise, Issa's semi-certitude seems to echo the late Sen. Joe McCarthy's assurance that he had papers proving there were 205 communists in the President Dwight D. Eisenhower's State Department, without a shred of evidence offered by the accuser. If there's a White House link, let's see if before insisting it's there.

The revelation of the inappropriate targeting of conservative groups came, notably, from the head of the screening office within the IRS, who subsequently has invoked her Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, and she has been suspended.

In any event, to equate the tea party and other right-leaning organizations singled out by the IRS review with Nixon's enemies list of specific critics who got under his skin for what they wrote in newspapers or said on the air is a yawning stretch. The implication is we're dealing with another White House cover-up that, in John Dean's memorable phrase, could be a cancer growing on the presidency.

What will be next from these hunters for deep Oval Office conspiracy? Will there be more cries for impeachment, to rescue a Republican Party that has a glaring leadership problem of its own?


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Reinventing Watergate | Politics