In the expanding political universe of anonymous allegations and nonresponsive responses, the latest exchange between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and prospective Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney takes the cake.
At issue is Mr. Romney's refusal to release more than two years of past income tax returns. Democrats have chided him by noting that his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, made 12 years of his returns public in his failed bid for the 1968 Republican nomination.
Mr. Reid started it all by saying in an interview with the Huffington Post that an unidentified former investor in Mr. Romney's Bain Capital firm had told him, "Harry, he (Romney) didn't pay any taxes for ten years!" Mr. Reid went on: "Now, how do I know that that's true? Well, I'm not certain, but obviously he can't release those tax returns. How would it look?"
Mr. Romney, fresh from his European trip and back on the campaign trail, called Mr. Reid on it in an interview with conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity. "Well," he said, "it's time for Harry to put up or shut up. Harry's going to have to describe who it is he spoke with because that's totally and completely wrong. It's untrue, dishonest and inaccurate. ... So I'm looking forward to have Harry reveal his source, and we'll probably find out it's the White House."
The former Massachusetts governor certainly has a gripe about Mr. Reid quoting an anonymous source for his allegation. But Mr. Romney again chose an unfortunate phrase with which to berate him; after all, if only Mr. Romney would "put up" his past tax returns in question, it would be the obvious way to get Mr. Reid to "shut up." Mr. Romney then proceeded to play the same game by saying "the White House" probably put Mr. Reid up to making the charge.
Mr. Romney can fall back on the view that the two past returns he has released meet the legal requirement of the Federal Elections Commission. In the court of public opinion, however, particularly during a presidential campaign, he risks encouraging doubts about whether he did indeed avoid all taxes in some or all of those 10 years. That, of course, is fine with Mr. Reid, although he obviously would prefer that the returns in question be released — if he is sure they will reveal what he suggests (and they may not). The good senator also could try to track down his mysterious caller and get him to make his allegation on the record. And so it goes.
It's part of the plague of new-media laxness these days for sources, named or unnamed, to make allegations without specifically substantiating them, and for news organizations, print, audio or video, to run with them. It's a plague on both houses — the accuser and the accused — to wage this shadow-boxing in public, leaving the voters to try to sort it all out.
The news media in recent years have made an effort — in newsprint fact-checking and occasionally on radio or television — to ascertain if either side is telling the truth, bending it, or flat-out lying. But that usually occurs after the cat is out of the bag. The old journalistic caveat that you don't publish or air something if you haven't checked it out first and found it to be true, has pretty much been trampled in the process of keeping the political pot boiling.
In this accentuated era of anything goes, politicians of all parties and ideological bents are guilty of poisoning the dialogue, as are purveyors of political news in all media who spread it mindlessly. No, Harry Reid should not have made the anonymous allegations, and Mitt Romney should not have blamed the White House without proof. But in terms of the presidential race, it's all beside the point.
Even without Mr. Reid's nameless accuser, in light of serious questions about Mr. Romney's use of offshore tax havens, it would make political sense for him as a candidate for high public office simply to "put up" on those older tax returns rather than just "shut up" about them, which only allows the Democrats to continue exploiting voters' doubts. Unless, that is, he has something significant to hide.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is email@example.com.