The democratic candidate's spouse refuses to disclose tax returns. Republicans seize the issue, asking what the spouse is hiding. The New York Times calls for full disclosure. Distracted by the controversy, the candidate is on the defensive. The spouse eventually relents and agrees to release five years' worth of tax returns, but only after the candidate's campaign has been damaged.
Sound familiar? Yes, John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, has refused to make her tax returns public, and her decision has caused some controversy. But she's not the spouse in the example above. That would be John A. Zaccaro, husband of then-New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1984. And if the Kerry campaign doesn't learn from the historical record, it risks its own John Zaccaro problem.
Twenty years ago Ferraro was bedeviled by her inconsistency. In July '84, she said she would release both her and her husband's tax returns. Yet a month later she backtracked and said she would release only her returns. Then she backtracked again, saying her husband would release "a financial -- a tax statement" on August 20. But she must not have consulted her husband, because Zaccaro initially refused. Finally he agreed to make public his tax returns from 1979 to 1984, after Republican attacks detracted from his wife's campaign.
When John Kerry talks about his wife's returns, he isn't inconsistent. He's inaccurate. He said on Meet the Press last week that presidential candidates are required by law to release their income tax returns. In fact, no such law exists. Releasing tax information has been customary since 1976. Also on Meet the Press, after host Tim Russert mentioned the Ferraro example, Kerry suggested his wife's decision not to release her returns wasn't a problem, because American politicians "have far more intrusive ethics forms today" than in 1984. "If you want to see what my wife's holdings are," Kerry said, "you can go to our Senate ethics forms. It shows you exactly what we have. It's very, very, very intrusive."
Kerry is dead wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, House and Senate members have been filling out financial disclosure forms for their respective ethics committees since 1978. In fact, Geraldine Ferraro had trouble with these forms, too. As a congresswoman, she regularly claimed to be exempt from disclosing her husband's finances, which would have been legal, provided she had no knowledge of her spouse's financial activities and had not profited from them. The problem was that Ferraro claimed the exemption even though she was an officer of her husband's real estate firm, P. Zaccaro & Company.
And congressional disclosure forms aren't as intrusive as Kerry says. It's true the forms contain a detailed list of a congressional couple's financial assets. But there's little specificity when it comes to the value of those assets. For example, poring through Kerry's most recent Senate disclosure form, which covers the 2002 calendar year, one finds that the senator and his wife have a stake in the Flying Squirrel charter airplane company in Delaware. But the form tells you only that the stake is "over $1,000,000," and that the investment provided somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000 in income in 2002.
What the congressional disclosure forms omit is also important. A tax return reveals someone's charitable contributions, for example, as well as an individual's mortgage deductions. Also, a tax return includes contributions to nonprofit organizations, including political ones. No such information is contained in the forms legislators submit to the House and Senate ethics committees.
Yet Heinz is adamant. She won't disclose her tax returns, she said through a spokesman, because she isn't a candidate for office. Why should she be subjected to the same scrutiny as her husband? Heinz has a point. She isn't breaking any law. She enjoys the same privacy rights as others. But she's now the first wife of a presidential candidate to refuse disclosure since the practice became customary. What would be in her tax returns that's worth keeping secret?
A lot, actually. One Republican lawyer says Heinz's returns would be a "treasure trove of opposition research." One thing the returns would show, this lawyer says, is the extent to which Kerry is a "kept man." According to his tax return, Kerry's income in 2003 was $395,338 -- over half of which came from the sale of his quarter interest in a 17th-century Dutch painting co-owned by Teresa and the art dealer Peter Tillou. (The 4' x 8' painting, incidentally, is "The Arrival of Frederick and Elizabeth, Prince and Princess of the Palatinate, at Flushing, April 29, 1613" by Adam Willaerts.) Sure, it was a high-income year for the senator. But in 2003, Kerry also took out a $6.4 million mortgage on his share of the couple's Beacon Hill townhouse in Boston to fund his strapped presidential campaign.
The Beacon Hill townhouse has come in handy before. Heinz bought it in 1995, the year she and Kerry married, for $1.7 million. An extensive renovation upped the market value to about $3 million. Then Heinz gave her husband ownership of half the house. A year later, in 1996, he mortgaged his share of the house in order to lend his Senate reelection campaign $900,000. It took the senator three years to pay off the loan. Boston journalists have long wondered how Kerry was able to get such plum mortgages on his Senate income. The answer is simple. His wife is worth nearly $550 million.
Making Heinz's tax returns public would confirm that she's Kerry's sugar daddy (sugar mommy?). It would also strike a blow against Kerry's populist rhetoric by detailing the lavish lifestyle he and his wife enjoy: the vacation home in Nantucket, the ski chalet in Ketchum, Idaho, the estate outside Pittsburgh, the Georgetown manse. Not to mention the red-and-white Gulfstream jet. And the tax returns could embarrass the Kerry campaign further if it's revealed that Heinz has contributed to independent organizations working to unseat President Bush.
A Bush campaign official says there are no plans to make an issue out of Heinz's tax returns. That's a big difference from 1984, when Republican surrogates took to the airwaves denouncing John Zaccaro. (Vice President George H.W. Bush's spokesman called Zaccaro "a very selfish man.") But the political press has started to question Heinz. Robert Novak devoted a column to the subject last week, for example. And the New York Times editorial page weighed in as well. "We urge that the candidate's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, release her tax returns," the editors wrote. The Times is being consistent. In 1984, during the Zaccaro controversy, an editorial in its pages said: "Mrs. Ferraro's husband, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion." Is Teresa Heinz?
Matthew Continetti is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.
By Matthew Continetti