How I Came to Write “The Great Tax Wars”
By
Steven R. Weisman

My book, “The Great Tax Wars,” is the product of more than 30 years of covering politics and 5 years of research for the work itself. I have long been fascinated as a reporter by the intersection of politics and economic and budget issues.

The campaign by Ronald Reagan for the presidency in 1980 brought these issues to the fore, and while covering Reagan’s first term as White House correspondent, I was always struck by the force of the arguments on both sides of the tax issue. Taxes seem like a dry subject, yet we debate them in highly moral terms.

Why is that?

The mid- and late-1990′s were a period when the whole national debate about government and taxes seemed to be changing from the Reagan paradigm. I mentioned to Alice Mayhew, editorial director of Simon & Schuster, that I was intrigued by what might be a rebirth of progressive thinking during the Clinton era — a greater acceptance of government, for example. She said she was more interested in the original birth of progressive thinking, at the turn of the last century. That got me going.

It had never occurred to me to try to write history. But by coincidence I had been reading, out of curiosity, about the original debates in 1913 and 1894 on the income tax, when I was researching what people had said as a way of writing about the Steve Forbes proposal for a flat tax in the 1996 election.

Bingo.

What about a book that traced the fiery debates that led to the enactment of the income tax in the first place? The income tax seemed to be a footnote in every history of that era, no more than that. In the new biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency — “Theodore Rex,” by Edmund Morris — it’s not even mentioned! Yet the debates of a century ago must have been as impassioned as they are now, I thought. The more research I did, the more I discovered this to be true.

I started researching the 1890′s and found I enjoyed looking into history. I used mostly secondary material, including biographies, but I enjoyed dipping when I could into memoirs, correspondence and other original material. I even went to the Library of Congress to leaf through the papers of William Jennings Bryan, the 1896 presidential candidate. I held in my hands a typewritten letter written by an editor in St. Louis recommending that he make the income tax a basis of his political campaigns.

This is fun, I thought.

Eventually I went back to the Civil War before going forward to World War I. I decided to end it in the 1920′s because by then the tax was fully established, though debates about the rates would rage for the rest of the century and into our own century.

It took me from 1997 to 2001 to finish the book, since I also had a day job as editorial writer for The Times. I found that sometimes I was writing about taxes by day in contemporary times and by night in the 19th century. But it’s been one of the most rewarding reporting jobs I’ve ever done.

Only problem: you can’t interview anyone about what they were thinking.

The main advantage: they aren’t around to disagree with your conclusions about what they were thinking!

11 October 2002