Many years ago, letters from soldiers, their spouses or parents, or just interested others came pouring into my office in the Pentagon every day. These letters involved complaints of mistreatment or abuse of authority, problems with medical treatment, requests for help, or any number of other reasons for people to be upset, angry, frightened, or depressed.
Only occasionally were they addressed to me. More often they were addressed to the President, First Lady, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the Chief of Staff of the Army, or any one of the 535 members of Congress and the handful of non-voting members. Then they came to me. My folks gathered information, from around the world if necessary, upon which to base a response, which I then mailed out on behalf of the figures to whom the letters were originally addressed. Except for members of Congress; in their case, I responded directly to them so they could respond to their constituents.
Some members of Congress took exception to my response if it didn’t give their constituents what they asked for. Some got downright abusive. I was never forced to change my position. Not because I’m wise or powerful, but because I had the backing of the Army hierarchy and was operating on sound, long-established principles that allowed no one to break into the system and change the results of a legitimate investigation, unless new information surfaced that required reopening a case. Still, some members could be persistent and exasperating.
One day I got an unusual letter from a Senator’s office. I had denied his request to reopen a case and try to help a lieutenant colonel who felt he had been wronged. I’d pointed out how we had handled the matter and why the results came out not in favor, and I explained that if we allowed a member of Congress to dabble in our work on one case, no case could then be safe from someone else’s dabbling, for good or ill. The Senator’s letter thanked me, said it was a terrific explanation, and assured me the constituent would be given our final answer. While I knew the letter had been written by a staffer, I felt it must reflect the attitude of the gentleman who signed it, Senator Chuck Grassley. From that moment on, through all these years, whether I agreed with him politically or not, I have always felt a special kindness toward Senator Grassley.
That is, until last week, when Senator Grassley defended the current tax plan that would increase the amount free of estate tax from $5.5 million per individual taxpayer to $11 million with an insulting, and dumb, explanation. Not having an estate tax, he explained, would be a boon to those who carefully save and invest, “as opposed to those that are just spending every darned penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”
When attacked for spouting such elitist and arrogant nonsense, he first retreated to the standard excuse of “they took my words out of context,” which was clearly not the case. Then he said the estate tax can cause farm folks to have to break up the family farm at the owner’s death, in order to pay the tax.
IRS figures for 2016 show that only 5,219 tax returns were affected by the estate tax. Very few of those owned any farm assets. Apparently the gentleman’s logic and arithmetic skills are as tainted as his understanding of and respect for the vast majority of taxpayers in this country.
Senator Grassley, I hereby cancel any warm and friendly feelings I had for you in the past. Your comments display a smugness and sense of superiority that make me sick. The people you disparage are the people among whom I grew up and mostly among whom I live today. They don’t deserve such contempt. I’m not so sure about you.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”