Don Alexander: A Man for Our Time

You might not know it, but the country lost a great man the other day, the kind of man that Americans say they want to see more of in Washington.

His name was Donald C. Alexander, though any friend or acquaintance called him Don. He was Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service from May 1973 until February 1977. And if you think the post of America’s top tax collector makes him the devil, read on.

Alexander, who died of cancer last week at age 87 at his home in Washington D.C., was slight in build but huge in courage, a man with unimpeachable integrity that was tested at the highest levels of government. It is the latter that makes him a man for our time and beyond.

Writing in Tax Notes magazine a few years ago, Alexander said that when he attended a White House concert in 1973 after President Nixon had nominated him to the IRS post (but before he was confirmed), Nixon told him, “You have a very difficult job. Do it well, and do it honestly.”

No more prophetic words were ever spoken. Upon assuming his post, Alexander discovered that the Nixon Administration was using the IRS to investigate the president’s critics. A rogue band of investigators had combed the records of 3,000 groups and 8,000 individuals.

As the New York Times noted in its obituary of Alexander, White House counsel John Dean had paved the way for such action, writing in a 1971 memo that the administration could “use the available federal machinery” to attack “our political enemies.”

Less than three months into his tenure, Alexander closed the unit, known as the Special Service Staff. That action earned him the eternal wrath of Nixon, who disparaged him in crude terms on a White House tape.

As if that weren’t enough, Nixon’s tax returns came up at the IRS for a random audit. Alexander alerted Treasury Secretary George Shultz and White House Chief of Staff Al Haig.

“An hour” after Alexander called Haig, the Washington Post quoted Alexander as saying, “he called me back to say the president is at Camp David, and he is up the wall over this – the IRS never audits a president.”

Actually, the IRS had audited other presidents. It proceeded with Nixon’s audit and, upon finding problems, forced the president to pay more than $400,000 in back taxes and penalties.

In recent years, I was lucky enough to get to know Alexander through his frequent attendance at tax policy conferences in Washington that were sponsored by Tax Analysts, the non-profit publisher for which I regularly consult.

Taking time from his busy law practice at one of Washington’s leading firms, he would amble slowly to his customary seat at the table in front (with a cane in hand at the last few events) – but not before greeting me with a warm smile and, to the end, a hearty handshake.

The conference would begin and, invariably, the old man would soon have a point to make. Upon recognition, and with a nod to the rule that speakers introduce themselves, he’d start with a droll “Don Alexander, former tax collector,” and then offer some wisdom for the ages.

His comments reflected deep concern for the nation’s tax system. He would complain frequently that the tax code was far too complicated and that lawmakers continued to add to the IRS’s burdens by doling out this tax break or that – each designed to make “social policy” through the tax code rather than, Alexander suggested, through the spending side where it belonged.

It was a losing battle, as he surely knew. With Americans skeptical of federal spending programs, lawmakers face much less public opposition when they allocate new tax breaks.

But if he could not win the war over the tax code, he could at least try to slow the march of tax complication and give the leaders of Washington’s tax policy community something to think about.

Throughout his life, Alexander was the model of a public servant. He received the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for his service in World War II, graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School, and served with distinction at both the IRS and in private practice.

So, take a moment to reflect on his life. For he reminds us of the best that America has to offer.

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