An Open Letter to Mitt Romney on Taxes and Our Fathers

Governor Romney, let me tell you about my father, a man who, by your definition, was not "qualified to become president."
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[T]he accounting firm which prepares my taxes has done a very thorough and complete job [to] pay taxes as legally due. I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president.
- Mitt Romney, July 29

Governor Romney, let me tell you about my father, a man who, by your definition, was not "qualified to become president."

Born in 1913, in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to Jewish immigrants recently arrived from Russia, he grew up in what he later described as "grinding poverty." While just a boy he held down an after-school job in a drug store. At 17 he got a full-time job in a chemical plant. One day a teacher berated him for falling asleep in class -- her anger subsided when he told her he'd worked the late shift the night before. His parents were uneducated. His mother sewed little dolls that she peddled door to door. When someone would hire him, his father drove a truck.

My father had a passion for education. He put himself through college and law school -- during the Depression -- most semesters working full-time at the plant and commuting to NYU at night. He volunteered for the Army in 1942 because he considered the service his duty: to his family, to his people, and to his country. He shipped out in the fall of 1944; he returned in March 1946 to meet his eleven-month-old daughter.

He and my mother raised four children on the salary of a middle, and eventually senior, manager at the parent company of the chemical plant at which he'd begun working while in high school. He was disappointed that he never practiced law per se, but he secured a life for himself and his family as solid members of the middle class. Even so, money was always an issue for him. Our family rarely took vacations; when we did we went to the Jersey shore, where we stayed in a rooming house with a shared kitchen. But he kept the lights on, the house warm, and food on the table. And he found money -- if only a dollar or two - to send to almost any charity that asked him. He moved with his wife and children to a house more spacious than the one he grew up in -- without a private car elevator like the one you're planning, Mitt, but big enough to contain for me decades of warm memories. He sent his four children to college, three of us to graduate or professional school.

Late in his life, due to decades of obsessive thrift and some good luck in the stock market, he was comparatively well off, but he never stopped wearing shoes he'd found for four dollars at K-Mart or Alexander's. Until the day my father died, the Depression lived within him, like a virus in his spinal cord. Anxiety about money was simply part of his make-up, even long after it needed to be.

But I never -- never, Mitt, not once -- heard my father complain about paying taxes. I'm sure he took his charitable deductions and his mortgage deductions, but the thought of engaging in complex financial maneuverings to lower his tax bill was repellent to him. A little estate planning -- an hour with an estate lawyer, a few documents signed -- would have saved his children a chunk of change after my his and my mother's deaths; he considered it dishonest and would have none of it. Mitt, my father paid more taxes than he was "legally due." You make that out to be a moral failing. It wasn't, not by a long shot.

Dad lived the American dream, and in return for how far he'd come he knew that he owed something to his community and his country. America had given him and his family the opportunity to rise out of poverty; the freedom to live securely and freely as Jews, liberated from the hard hand of Old World oppression; the right to vote; the right of free speech. Taxes for my father were the dues he paid to be a citizen of this democracy. Dad didn't "go Galt," Mitt -- for all of the hard work he'd undertaken to lift his circumstances, he never thought he'd done it on his own. My father may not have enjoyed paying taxes, but neither did he resent it. To him, paying your taxes was the responsible thing to do. And, even though he was too humble to speak of it in this way, it was for him the patriotic thing to do.

Your father seems to have been the same way, Mitt. George Romney was rich enough to hire lawyers and accountants like yours who could have set up holdings for him in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands, but the thought was repellent to him, too.

Your father and mine seem to have had a lot in common. And neither, by your lights, was qualified to become president.

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