They're openly sneering at us now. Late on Friday, the Internal Revenue Service revealed that two-and-a-quarter years of Lois Lerner's emails have been "lost". Yesterday the IRS told Congress that it is unable to produce the emails of six other officials involved in the targeting of conservative groups, among them Nicole Flax, the chief of staff to then IRS commissioner Steven Miller.
We now learn that the IRS only retains email on its server for six months. After that, the email exists only on the hard drive of the physical desktop computer of the employee in question. And therefore, if that hard drive crashes, those emails are lost forever.
By the way, do feel free to try that excuse if the IRS asks you to produce any document more than six months old. As I said way back when at the dawn of this investigation, everyone subject to the attentions of this agency should play by Lois Lerner Rules: oh, it'll take me years to produce all that stuff - even if I still have any of it.
Is it just the seven officials in whom Congress is interested whose computers crashed so catastrophically? That would seem statistically improbable. Or is this a more widespread problem and there are hundreds, thousands of IRS employees who've lost years of their emails? And, if that's the case, why has nobody suggested that that policy of only retaining emails on the server for six months needs to be changed, urgently? After all, the IRS isn't shy about telling the citizenry that their own data-retention policies are insufficient. Indeed, Cleta Mitchell (the lawyer representing certain of the targeted groups) says that one of her clients was penalized by the IRS for only retaining emails for a year - ie, twice as long as the IRS server retains them.
Over the weekend, Charles Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan and George Will compared Lois Lerner's missing two-and-a-quarter years to Rose Mary Woods' missing eighteen-and-a-half minutes. President Nixon's secretary - the soi-disant "Fifth Nixon" - died in 2005, and I wrote about her in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, now available in both autographable print edition and new and expanded eBook edition. Along the way I said this:
Scandals are complicated things. To catch fire with a public disinclined to wade through pages of densely investigative journalism, they need an imageâ€”and Rose provided it. She said she'd taken a phone call, in the course of which she'd accidentally kept her foot on the tape machine's pedal and accidentally hit the record button; and even though the phone was a long way from the foot pedal, the explanation could have passed muster if Rose hadn't gamely essayed a visual re-enactmentâ€”her limbs extended to the limit across the length of the office, her left hand reaching backward to the phone, her right forward to the record button, one foot straining for the pedal, presumably leaving the other free to snake round the desk and over to the corner to start the Ray Conniff on the eight-track. The big stretch was too much of a stretch for the court, and for the "silent majority," which broke its silence and started guffawing loudly. John Dean called her a "stand-up woman," and she wasâ€”if only she'd stayed in that position.
It's different now. There are no buttons, no pedals. One moment, two years' worth of evidence is there on seven IRS desktops. The next, it's vaporized in what appears to be a highly selective series of computer crashes. It's still a stretch, but nobody cares whether you rubes buy it or not. I mean, what are you gonna do, right?
Rose Mary Woods' eighteen-and-a-half minutes lingered on in the cultural consciousness. There is still a Rosemary Award for Worst Open Government Performance, and a while back Arianna Huffington was handing out her own Rose Mary Woods Award for Convenient Technological Incompetence, although The Huffington Post seems in no hurry to revive the honor. Writing about Miss Woods for the first time in many years, I had forgotten what a staple she was - of stand-up routines, sitcoms, humor columns. When she died, the wags at The Washington Post ran an appreciation by Hank Stuever complete with an unexplained "gap" - a chunk of blank white paper in the middle of the article - secure in their confidence that, even after three decades, everyone would get the joke. In defiance of Warhol, Rose Mary was famous for eighteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds: the precise length of the gap. The world's most famous gap. The Post's Tony Kornheiser in a memoir of his father:
'What happened to your teeth, Dad?' I asked softly. There were gaps. Rose Mary Woods gaps.
President Sadat had a belly dancer entertain President Nixon at a state dinner. Mr Nixon was really impressed. He hadn't seen contortions like that since Rose Mary Woods.
You could fill a memorial library with novels set in the Seventies in which she serves as the instant all-purpose cultural allusion. She's there in Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, and Delia Ephron's Hanging Up, and Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, and Robert Ludlum's Apocalypse Watch ("I figured we had one of those Rose Mary Woods things"). In Samuel Shem's The House of God four generations of a family gather for dinner, and Rose's turn provides fun for young and old:
Spurred on by the news photos of Rose Mary Woods spread-eagled between the foot pedal of her tape recorder and the phone behind her as if awaiting a quick roll in the hay with Nixon, we laughed and chortled together that now, finally, Nixon was going to get hisâ€¦ My brother's four-year-old daughterâ€¦ was learning to play with her toy phone by picking it up and spread-eagling herself and screaming RO-MARY REACH RO-MARY REACHâ€¦
Does anyone think Lois Lerner will rate a barrel-load of novels and parody awards? Most Americans have no idea who she is because, unlike Rose Mary Woods, the media have declined to make her a punchline. On Saturday, Ms Lerner failed to make the front page of The New York Times - or any other page. Emboldened by the acquiescence of the media's court eunuchs, American government is on the move, exiting the First World and heading for banana-republic territory, at quite a clip.
So, like a Gay Nineties boulevardier riddled with tertiary syphilis, the diseased IRS staggers on. Benghazi and Baghdad are far away, but the most powerful revenue agency on the planet is in your home, in your bank, in your credit card statements. If the IRS is corrupt, it wouldn't matter if every other federal agency were squeaky clean, which they certainly aren't. But it's beyond that: the IRS is systemically corrupt, and they're getting away with it. Which means that they'll keep doing it, and worse.
If you listen carefully, that sound you hear in the two-year static of vaporized evidence is your government laughing at you.