THE BLOG
05/27/2013 06:42 am ET | Updated Jul 27, 2013

Character and the IRS

"He has the presence of a great man. He would tell the truth even if it hurt his cause. Congress always respected him."
- House Speaker Sam Rayburn speaking about George C. Marshall

"I answered the questions that were asked of me."
- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney

"I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any I.R.S. rules and regulations, and I have not provided false information to this or any other Congressional Committee."
- Lois Lerner, Director, IRS Exempt Organizations Unit, just before taking the Fifth Amendment

While the factual record on the current IRS scandal is not complete, it is clear that the agency used search names such as "Tea Party" to create a "Be on the Lookout" list for organizations claiming Section 501 (c) (4) tax exempt status, thus substituting political leanings for evidence of actual, prohibited tax exempt practice. It is also clear that, for nearly a month, a series of IRS and now White House officials have sought to defend the IRS action as purely one of "foolish mistakes" (the term applied by now outgoing Acting Commissioner Steven Miller). And it is also clear that the standard set by some current officials for truth and transparency falls far short of the standard set by Army Chief of Staff (and later Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense) George C. Marshall.

Instead of Congress finding it relatively easy to get the truth from people who want to tell the truth, they and the public have been treated to a series of officials offering partial disclosures, reluctant admissions of omissions, and claims that they have not lied. Were the public not so used to such behavior in recent decades, they would probably be even more angry. Some pundits have noted that the president's job approval rating has not suffered (yet), as if that signified that the damage being done to public trust in government is not that big a deal.

It is easy to lose the forest for the trees here. The trees are all those little facts as to who knew what when, who ordered whom to say what, who intended to do what to whom, and whose statement was factually accurate or not. The forest is character. "Character is the only secure foundation of the state," Calvin Coolidge said after the scandals of the Harding Administration. Character seems in short supply these days in parts of the IRS and the White House.

Character demands primary loyalty to the Constitution, not to one's superiors. Character requires telling the whole truth, not evading or omitting it in an effort to be legally correct though not fully forthcoming. Character means having a strong sense of duty and honor and the moral courage to do the right thing. Character means you do what you know you should do, rather than what you think you can get away with doing. Character requires selfless service, not self-protection.

What seems troubling, in addition, is that all the officials involved in this may well have started out their public careers as bright, capable people intent on doing something good for the country. But being intelligent is no substitute for the character required of a public official. As Abigail Adams told her young son (and future president) John Quincy: "Great learning and superior abilities . . . will be of little value and small estimation unless virtue, honor, truth, and integrity are added to them."

Even if we give IRS officials the benefit of the doubt -- that confronted with a two-fold increase in Section 501 (c) (4) applications and insufficient resources they chose a terrible short-hand way to get their work done -- we still have to question why they lacked the foresight to see the ethical problem they were creating. Their technical smarts were not matched with the moral insight that should have alerted them to the minefield they were entering.

A third of the recommendations in the Treasury Inspector General's report call for more and better training of IRS workers involved in making these tax exempt determinations. Joseph Grant, the Acting Commissioner for Tax Exempt and Government Entities in the IRS, responded that the IRS would develop such training -- shortly before he announced that he was leaving in June along with Miller. What the IG never asked for, and what the IRS seems to miss, is that their problems were not merely lapses in technical knowledge and the application of legal or regulatory principles. They were also lapses in character and ethics. No training was recommended or offered on these topics. While such training would help, it would need to be accompanied by leaders at all levels who model character as well as technical competence.

Terry Newell's newest book, Statesmanship, Character, and Leadership in America, deals expressly with the importance of leadership character in government.