The tax returns of prominent officeholders are scrutinized not just for details about the individuals' financial lives, but for clues about their character. Mitt Romney's returns, released Tuesday after weeks of pressure from his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, have been eyeballed more closely than an eighth-grade boy's first pornographic magazine. The returns reveal, as expected, an extremely wealthy individual who benefits enormously from the lower tax rate on investment income.
One can certainly draw conclusions about Romney's character from his statements about that tax rate, which indicate he thinks he is paying his fair share. But the returns also suggest piety: Romney and his wife, Ann, donated more than $4 million in 2010 and 2011 to the Mormon church -- a 10 percent tithe on their more than $40 million in adjusted gross income for those years.
A Huffington Post review of the past tax filings of presidents and vice presidents turned up other details that may help provide a better understanding of the people behind the numbers.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, have cleaned house, it seems. In their 2010 tax return, the Bidens say they donated $3,800 in "clothing and household goods" with a fair market value of $950 to a Goodwill site in Wilmington, Del.
Ted Sikorski, a Goodwill spokesman, said that Wilmington area stores receive 400,000 donations a year and that the organization doesn't keep track of who donates what, so there is no telling whether those donations included Jill Biden's vintage dresses or Joe Biden's old gym socks. But if you bought a pair of pants from a Delaware Goodwill store recently and found an Amtrak ticket stub in the pocket -- well, who knows.
That the Bidens bothered to claim such a small tax write-off says something about their finances. They reported adjusted gross income of $379,178 in 2010 -- a nice payday for most Americans, but considerably less than many members of Congress, and also less than Joe Biden's boss and his wife, who earned $1,728,096 in 2010. That was, in turn, considerably less than the $5.5 million that Barack and Michelle Obama reported in 2009, mostly from book sales.
In 1969, Richard Nixon claimed a $576,000 deduction for donating his own papers to the government -- a tax trick that likely wouldn't fly today, at least not politically. According to the inventory included with the return, those papers included "15,000 items from the visit to the United States of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev."
Other tidbits: In 1983, Ronald and Nancy Reagan reported $3,300 in rent collected from a radio station that operated on vacant land he owned near his beloved Santa Barbara, Calif., ranch. Bill and Hillary Clinton claimed a deduction on $38,683 in moving expenses in 1993, the year they moved from Arkansas to the White House. Barbara Bush earned a $1,000 "signer's fee" from Reader's Digest in 1990, according to the tax return jointly filed with George H.W. Bush.
The most revealing return, reflecting both a different age of presidential prerogative and still-current themes of a tax system that befuddles most filers, came from Franklin Roosevelt. In 1937, he reported $82,392 in net income, but couldn't figure out how much to pay. His solution: he sent a $15,000 check and a letter to the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
"I am wholly unable to figure out the amount of the tax for the following reasons," Roosevelt wrote before launching into an explanation of how tax rates had changed the prior year. "As this is a problem in higher mathematics, may I ask that the Bureau let me know the amount of the balance due?" he concluded.
Romney's 2010 tax return, longer than any president's at 203 pages, shows he isn't willing to trust the government to tell him what he owes.
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