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Comparing the Watergate Gang With Lois Lerner

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Veteran Washington chronicler Elizabeth Drew, who’s been promoting the re-release of her 1970s New Yorker magazine Watergate articles to mark the 40th anniversary of the Nixon resignation, is eager to draw contrasts with the drama in today’s polarized government.

Speaking Tuesday night at the Arlington County Central Library, the essayist and television commentator warned the crowd of some 130 that she would weigh in on the current controversy over alleged political bias at the Internal Revenue Service. “I expect some tweets on this,” said the alumnae of Congressional Quarterly now writing mostly for the New York Review of Books.

Drew’s new volume, “Washington Journal,” collects the best of her detailed weekly reports on the nation’s most famous political scandal and adds a new afterword on Richard Nixon’s life after he helicoptered away for the last time from the White House lawn.

Most of her talk dealt with the illegal burglaries and co-opting of agency machinery conducted “under the aegis” of Nixon, who, as demonstrated in his secretly taped Oval Office conversations, was often drunk when he delivered “strange” orders designed to retaliate against many perceived enemies.

But the “scary” constitutional crisis over impeachment in 1974 went far deeper than today’s “faux scandals,” Drew said, mentioning the still-unresolved issues at the IRS, the ongoing Benghazi congressional probes and the Justice Department’s pursuit of journalists who received leaks. The 18-minute gap on one of Nixon’s tapes (surely erased by Nixon himself at Camp David, Drew said,) was far more weighty than the missing emails from former IRS Exempt Organization chief Lois Lerner.

“Lerner may have said some dumb things—people do,” said Drew, who is free with her opinions. But the IRS was right to examine all the new types of nonprofit groups emerging under evolving campaign finance rules. “Certain elements of the press were bound to run with” that story, she said. “But the effect is that the right wingers in Congress are using the story to intimidate the IRS—and it’s working.”

Charles S. Clark joined Government Executive in the fall of 2009. He has been on staff at The Washington Post, Congressional Quarterly, National Journal, Time-Life Books, Tax Analysts, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the National Center on Education and the Economy. He has written or edited online news, daily news stories, long features, wire copy, magazines, books, and organizational media strategies.

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