< A Surprising History of Political Disclosure


Friday, July 20, 2012


MITT ROMNEY:  I’ve already put out one year of tax returns. We’ll put out the next year of tax returns as soon as the accountants have that ready. And that’s what we’re gonna put out. I know there will always be calls for more.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Calls continued this week for Mitt Romney to release more tax records, among his critics, editors of The National Review predicting he would eventually have to cave. Why? Because tax record releases are something of a campaign tradition, inaugurated by a vice-presidential candidate who was suffering some trust issues back in 1952.


RICHARD NIXON:  It was a little Cocker Spaniel dog, black and white, spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers speech, he promised to address reports that he had received improper gifts, but he never returned the dog.


RICHARD NIXON:  Now but regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In addition to this bit of adorable political theater, Nixon went over his finances – how much money he had, how much his house was worth - and he urged his Democratic opponents to do the same.


RICHARD NIXON:  - Vice-President of the United States must have the confidence of all the people. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that’s why I suggest that Mr. Stevenson and Mr. Sparkman, since they are under attack, should do what they’re doing.

     [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Joseph Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, is with us now. Joe, welcome to OTM.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  Well, thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That’s quite a specialty you’ve got.


JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  You know, if you find a small enough pond,  it’s, it’s easy to be the big fish, so –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  [LAUGHS] So, can you tell me what the impact of Nixon’s Checkers speech was?

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  Well, you know, the immediate impact was that Nixon actually got to keep his spot on the [LAUGHS], on the Republican ticket that year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But was that because of the dog or the disclosures?

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  [LAUGHS] Nixon was never really at his best on TV but, you know, he said, my wife doesn’t have a mink coat but she has a good Republican cloth coat. So it served its immediate political goal of sort of saving his skin.

In a broader sense, it did start getting people to think about financial disclosure by candidates, but it really took until the late sixties before it became a routine sort of thing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But there’s no standard as to how much.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  There really is no standard. If you look back over the last several decades, what you find is some have released 30 years’ of returns and some have released just one. Candidates and, for that matter, Presidents, have a protection for their tax privacy just like every American does. The IRS can’t release any information about any of our taxes without our permission.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So how much has Obama released?

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  I think he’s released back to 2000, and that’s fairly typical. Now, what you often see is that how much tax disclosure a candidate offers depends on what their political situation is. So Obama released a lot of returns when he was in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton and he wanted to pressure her to release more returns; he was trying to embarrass her, so people tend to release a lot of data when they feel like they can get some political advantage out of that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  When John Kerry ran in 2004 he was quite open about his own finances, but he drew the line at his millionaire wife’s.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  Spouses do turn out to be a problem here. I mean, this goes back as Geraldine Ferraro when she run as Mondale’s running mate. Her husband didn’t release any tax information, and, and that was quite a controversy at the time. John Kerry had that problem with his wife and, actually, John McCain had that problem with his wife.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Now, there are already mandatory disclosures for presidential candidates that give us some insights into how much money they have, so what can you learn from tax returns that you can’t learn from what they are legally mandated to provide?

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  I think the real issue here is that it can tell us whether they’re walking the walk. You know, I’ll get up and say, oh, I’m against tax avoidance. You know, I think everybody should pay their fair share, blah-blah-blah.

The question is how do you comport yourself when people aren’t looking? And that goes to the heart of someone’s character. I think that the American people have a right to know that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  People who disagree with you argue that the requirement to disclose tax returns going back x number of years might discourage people from entering politics, not just because it would reveal possibly their own dirty underwear but also that of their families and friends.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  They’re already compromised their own privacy and that of their family and friends when they decided to run, in the first place.


JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  I mean, they’re filing financial disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission that are arguably much more invasive than a tax return. So we may think, ugh, past candidates would never have been able to survive this. Could John Kennedy have survived this kind of scrutiny? Maybe not, but you know what, it’s all beside the point.

Long ago these guys decided that their life was gonna be an open book. I think we should just solve the problem, require these guys to staple their return to the back of their FEC disclosure, [LAUGHS] figuratively at least, and just put it out there.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This character argument - you mention John Kennedy. He would not have survived inquiries into his personal life, either. Do you think all that stuff should be stapled to the back of an envelope?

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  I just don’t think you can turn back the clock on this. We might all wish we lived in a more genteel era, but I don’t know what we’re clinging to here. That era is long since gone!

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Joseph, thank you very much.

JOSEPH THORNDIKE:  My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Joseph Thorndike is the director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, and a contributing editor for Tax Notes magazine.