Tax Timing

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The alert reader (and for that matter the near-comatose one) will notice that this month’s cover story on American taxation arrives at a conclusion that will not be anathema to the chairman of the company that pays my salary. And given the current vigor of the flat-tax debate that he did so much to initiate, I thought it might be worthwhile saying something about how this particular article came to be.

One of the frustrations of planning future stories for a magazine that appears eight times a year and cannot match the scorching pace and big staffs of the weeklies lies in the difficulty of calculating what subjects will have a hold on the public imagination some months down the road. Often enough a story commissioned in the heat of the current concerns has all the urgency of OUR IMPERILED INTERURBAN SYSTEM when it comes time to print it.

American Heritage editors are lucky: we are freed from some of the constraints that bind other magazine editors, because so much of our subject matter is timeless. But that very timelessness puts us under the pressure—a wholesome pressure, withal—to connect the past with the present, to show that timeless doesn’t mean irrelevant. Our Associate Publisher, Ed Hughes, whose work is very much in the present, pointed this out with offhand economy one day not long ago when I passed his office on my way to lunch. “Hey, Richard!” he called out. “You on your way to Green-Wood Cemetery to cover a late-breaking story for us?”

But last spring it did not require supernatural editorial prescience to predict, in broad terms at least, what would be happening this spring. No matter who was in the presidential race, there would be plenty of discussion about taxes.

This was an easy call for me. I asked John Steele Gordon to write an overview of taxation in America to appear around tax time in 1996. I never considered going to anyone other than our business columnist. Not only is John great at spotting and telling a small but resonant story (his piece on the casual corporate murder of an American classic, Liederkranz cheese, drew about as much mail as anything we’ve ever published); he is also adept at sorting out the jackstraw facts of a huge story and setting them down in a lucid and lively narrative.

He had already on our behalf won victories over such obdurate subjects as the national debt and the health care crisis, and now he’s done it again. John’s survey of American taxation arrived in these offices before our Chairman had entered the nation’s biggest, scariest arena.

Once he had, I needled John about it some. “Hell,” he replied happily, “I was for a flat tax back when Harold Stassen was still running for President.”