This is no ordinary scandal , Peggy Noonan writes on her Wall Street Journal weblog  Declarations , calling the IRS’s abuse of its power “the worst Washington scandal since Watergate.”

Something big has shifted. The standing of the administration has changed.

As always it comes down to trust. Do you trust the president’s answers when he’s pressed on an uncomfortable story? Do you trust his people to be sober and fair-minded as they go about their work? Do you trust the IRS and the Justice Department? You do not.


I’ve been wondering when, in the course of the president’s second term, the tide would turn against him. Lame ducks are vulnerable even to their friends, who have their own reasons for being critical — for reporters, for example, being critical makes finding the story that might make the front page or the nightly news much easier. You have a choice between loyalty to an ideological comrade who’s losing power day by day and the chance to advance your career which has a good many yeas to run, and it’s bye-bye comrade.

The IRS scandal brought this on rather sooner than I would have expected. Obama as per usual throws up in his hands in shock and horror and fusses and claims he’ll do something about it. It’s an Inspector Renault in the casino moment, and the president has had so many of these that even his supporters must begin to doubt how shocked, shocked! he actually is. As Noonan writes:

The president, as usual, acts as if all of this is totally unconnected to him. He’s shocked, it’s unacceptable, he’ll get to the bottom of it. He read about it in the papers, just like you.

But he is not unconnected, he is not a bystander. This is his administration. Those are his executive agencies. He runs the IRS and the Justice Department.

A president sets a mood, a tone. He establishes an atmosphere. If he is arrogant, arrogance spreads. If he is too partisan, too disrespecting of political adversaries, that spreads too. Presidents always undo themselves and then blame it on the third guy in the last row in the sleepy agency across town.


Those of us who remember Watergate (I was in junior high) will remember all the talk about “the arrogance of power” and the Actonion warnings about what happens to men who have it. The effect of Nixon’s personality and character on those who worked for him was endlessly analyzed and the argument made that the kind of man he was determined the kind of men who worked for him and what they did. People felt that a Nixon would naturally, if not inevitably, have an Erlichman and a Liddy under him.

And these were, though at the time partisan, good lessons. I don’t think I’ve yet heard anyone on the left use those words, or see in Obama’s character an encouragement to the arrogance of power in those who staff his administration, though the lessons are obviously as true now as they were then. And truer, if anything, the administration’s sense of entitlement and righteousness being something that weakens one’s resistance to temptations.

The temptations are built into the nature of political power. They’re the ordinary temptations fallen men experience, whether in sixth grade student government or the White House. (Or, we should be honest, in an editorial office.) Though I know what Noonan means by “no ordinary scandal,” and agree with her, the odds seem to be good that the current scandal is really quite ordinary —  extraordinary in scale, of course, but boringly ordinary in nature.

Articles by David Mills

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