In a recorded conversation in the Oval Office on May 13, 1971, Richard M. Nixon laid out for his aides the job qualifications for the next commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends,” the president told H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, according to a transcript published years later in The Washington Post. “Now it’s as simple as that. If he isn’t, he doesn’t get the job.”
The man who got the job was Johnnie Walters, a fellow Republican then serving as assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s tax division.
Mr. Walters said he did not know of the president’s demands when he became commissioner on Aug. 6, 1971. Once in office, by all accounts, he refused to participate in the administration’s attempts to use the tax agency for political purposes — most notably, to intimidate through audits or threatened audits the individuals on the Nixon “enemies list.”
Mr. Walters, 94, died June 24 at his home in Greenville, S.C. He had congestive heart failure, according to a daughter, Betsy Kukorowski.
Mr. Walters took office at a time of particular consternation among Nixon administration officials. They had found his predecessor — Randolph W. Thrower, who died in March at 100 — insufficiently cooperative with their efforts to make appointments and intimidate adversaries.
The president bitterly recalled being audited during the Democratic administration of President John F. Kennedy, who had defeated him in the 1960 election. In the run-up to Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign, White House counsel John W. Dean III furnished Mr. Walters with the administration’s “enemies list,” naming hundreds of individuals to be targeted for tax investigations.
“I was so shocked,” Mr. Walters told The Post years later. “During the Kennedy years, things were done that shouldn’t have been done. But this would have ruined the entire tax system. I said, ‘John, do you realize what you’re doing? If I did what you asked, it’d make Watergate look like a Sunday school picnic.’ ”
According to Mr. Walters, Dean — who maintained he was uncomfortable about having to deliver the order — remarked that “the man I work for doesn’t like somebody to say no.”
Mr. Walters later took the list to his superior, Treasury Secretary George P. Shultz, and said that the IRS should not act on it. Shultz agreed. Mr. Walters put the list in a safe, according to The Post, and later provided it to Congress.
“Johnnie has been a disappointment,” Dean said in a Sept. 15, 1972, conversation in the Oval Office.
“Well, he’s going to be out,” Nixon replied. “He’s finished.”
Mr. Walters served as IRS commissioner through April, 30, 1973, and then returned to private law practice.
“The very base of the democratic way of life and the republican form of Government,” he told Time magazine in 1974, “is built on the self-assessment tax system. Now if you louse that up, and it was loused up by those people, we don’t have a democracy.”
Johnnie McKeiver Walters was born Dec. 20, 1919, in Darlington County, S.C. His parents were sharecroppers.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Furman University in Greenville in 1942 and served as a navigator in the Army Air Forces in Europe during World War II. His decorations included the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and multiple awards of the Air Medal, according to his family.
Mr. Walters received a bachelor of law degree from the University of Michigan in 1948 and worked for the IRS’s office of the chief counsel before being hired by the tax division of the oil company Texaco. He practiced law in Greenville before being appointed assistant attorney general in 1969.
At the IRS, he was an outspoken critic of corporate tax evasion and lamented the high number of taxpayers who felt compelled to pay professionals to complete their tax returns for them.
After his tenure at the IRS, he practiced law with the firm of Hunton and Williams in Washington, then returned to South Carolina, where he continued his legal work. He retired in 2006. His memoir, “Our Journey,” was published in 2011.
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Donna Hall Walters of Greenville; four children, Dee Dee Gent of Sparks, Nev., Betsy Kukorowski of Raleigh, N.C., Hilton Walters of Oklahoma City and John Roy Walters of Irmo, S.C.; three sisters; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Last year, amid the controversy surrounding IRS scrutiny of conservative groups applying for exempt status, Mr. Walters expressed his concern.
“I’m distressed at what’s happening and particularly with IRS,” he told the Greenville News. “IRS must be run nonpolitical. Our tax system otherwise will fail and we can’t afford that.”