Republicans Often Hammered for Withholding Tax Returns

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when a statewide Republican candidate was getting trashed almost on a daily basis for not releasing his tax returns.

The lead paragraph on a typical front page story in The Tennessean would read something like this, if memory serves: Multi-millionaire Bill Brock, heir to the candy fortune, refused again yesterday to release his tax returns. The year was 1976. Republican Brock had defeated Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Sr. in 1970, because Gore wasn't segregationist enough and pro-war enough for many Tennessee voters. His defeat rankled liberal Democrats like John Seigenthaler, the editor of The Tennessean.

Seigenthaler had worked for Robert Kennedy. He got his head bashed in with a lead pipe protecting Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala. (The South didn't produce many newspaper-editor heroes during the Civil Rights era. I'm sure there were others, but I should note that Seigenthaler, Ray Jenkins, and Ralph McGill were mine.)

It must have really rankled Seigenthaler to see Brock, an instrument of President Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy," take out a liberal Southern Democrat like Gore. That was the background when Brock entered his 1976 re-election campaign. The Democrats nominated Nashville lawyer Jim Sasser, who had run Gore's unsuccessful 1970 campaign. Sasser was an undistinguished and charisma-challenged candidate. The Democratic campaign had to be about knocking down Brock.

In those days, The Tennessean was the premier "political" paper in the state and they often set the tone for campaigns. Their stories went out on the wire services. The Tennessean made Brock's taxes a statewide story.

In today's journalism world there would have been a few stories about Brock not releasing his tax returns. But then it would have been "old news." Move along. Nothing more to see here. Gov. Phil Bredesen released part of his returns in 2002, but not the detailed schedules necessary for a complete picture of his wealth. Nobody cared.

Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam is being hammered by his opponents for not releasing his tax returns related to Pilot Corporation. (Though he has released everything else.) We will see down the road whether the issue becomes "old news" or whether it remains an issue in the campaign.

But the merciless campaign by The Tennessean, with front-page stories and tough editorials, finally led to Brock releasing his tax returns. It was an unmitigated disaster. Turns out Brock had only paid a couple of thousand dollars in income tax, using the loopholes provided by the tax code. So the campaign was then all about a multi-millionaire paying less income tax than the average working stiff in Tennessee.

Sasser won handily. He served three terms.

These days, of course, we are not nearly as populist. How could we be? We have elected Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Fred Thompson, Ned McWherter, Phil Bredesen, millionaires all. Millionaire Bill Frist came along with the resources to oust Sasser. We don't seem to have any problem electing "multi-millionaires" anymore.

So the knocks on Haslam by his opponents are reported. But do they resonate?

Is there a difference between being a "candy heir" and being an owner and former executive of an oil company? The tax return Haslam released showed an admirable amount of charitable giving. I doubt there is anyone in public office in Tennessee who could match it. He also paid a healthy amount of money in taxes.

Will Tennessee media take a strong stand and demand "sunshine" on the Pilot holdings? Or will it remain just an issue raised by his opponents?

We don't live in the same world as previous generations. We seem to have accepted the idea that successful and wealthy people may be okay in public service.

Times change. Issues change. Old issues aren't necessarily today's issues.