America's Beloved Taxman, at 98
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Former IRS chief Mort Caplin marks two tremendous anniversaries this year: the 50th of the tax boutique he founded, Caplin & Drysdale, and the 70th of D-Day, during which he was a beachmaster on Normandy. (The first time we spoke with Mort, he was just a youthful, naive 94-year-old.)
In Mort's office, where he works every day at the age of 98, he sits behind a desk shipped decades ago from England. Behind him are photographs with numerous world leaders, including Golda Meir, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. On other walls hang a TIME magazine cover bearing his face and a Legion d'Honneur awarded by French President Sarkozy for his role in liberating France. As Navy Beachmaster, Mort was part of the initial force landing on Omaha Beach. He still swims each day before coming to work. The day after we spoke, he had lunch plans with current IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
Mort recalls a career that started with, and is still centered on, the idea of "service." He graduated top of his class from UVA Law and became the 13th lawyer at what is now Paul Weiss. Then he joined the Navy, taking to heart a quote he tells us from memory, "Thomas Jefferson said, 'There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportionate to the bounties that debt and fortune measured to him.'" During Mort's law school graduation in 1940, he saw President Roosevelt make his famous speech about Italy's declaration of war on France, "the hand that held the dagger has stuck it into the back of its neighbor." We snapped Mort looking at a newspaper photo from the event, above.
Mort tells us the Navy had an "unexpected influence" on his legal career. He returned to school under the GI Bill--night school at NYU Law to "brush up on what I left overseas in the military"--while working again at Paul Weiss by day. He took a lot of corporate and tax law and moved to Charlottesville to start teaching at UVA Law, while still finishing his dissertation for his NYU doctorate in law. "I never would have done this if it hadn't been for the war," he says. While Mort taught at UVA Law, his students included Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy (and others who became prominent, such as E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. and Sen. John Warner). Then-Sen. John Kennedy came to the university to give a speech. He had dinner with Mort and others that evening and discussed Mort's testimony before Congress on pending tax legislation. A few days after JFK became President, Mort got a call asking if he'd serve on his tax task force.
President Kennedy appointed Mort Commissioner of the IRS in January 1961. A few months later, on May 1, Kennedy became the first and only president to visit the IRS. He's welcomed by Mort to the podium, above. "I thought he was an extraordinary person," says Mort, and "one of the few Presidents who ever recognized the importance of the Internal Revenue Service." During Mort's term at the IRS, he helped retool the tax system and move the agency from keypunch to nationwide computerization.
TIME put Mort on its cover during his IRS years. He revisited the agency's DC headquarters last month, above. As Commissioner, he reformed the public's image of tax collectors--emphasizing education and cooperation, and becoming known, as the pamphlet below shows, as "your friendly tax collector." It was a heartbreaking experience, he has said, to be part of the administration when JFK was killed. Mort remained LBJ's Commissioner for more than a year and has stayed friends with the Kennedy family. At Mort's 90th birthday, celebrated in the Senate Caucus room, Ted Kennedy was in attendance.
After Mort stepped down as IRS Commissioner in '64, he founded Caplin & Drysdale with his former UVA Law student Douglas Drysdale, emphasizing the concept of service: "We had a particular philosophy...We wanted people who were involved in public service, who believed it was an important facet of life." The firm began recruiting from Treasury and the ranks of Supreme Court clerks, and lawyers tended to spend periods of time in the government. Starting with six lawyers and now around 70, the firm's stayed away from what Mort jokes are "merger of the month" offers. They wanted the feeling that "there is a kind of debt of service that people have in a democracy," he says, "not just billable hours."
After an incredible 71 years of marriage, Mort's wife, Ruth, passed away this August at age 93. She was a screenwriter who had released a film, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont in '05. Ruth and Mort had donated $4M to build the 300-seat Ruth Caplin Theatre at UVA and were there to cut the ribbon last year. (The opening performance was You Can't Take It With You, which involves a tax collector.) There's a large print of UVA, above, across from Mort's desk. He taught there for more than three decades and has stayed heavily involved, including serving as trustee of multiple organizations, chairing the UVA Council for the Arts, sitting on multiple boards at the university, and founding the Mortimer Caplin Conference on the World Economy.
In the 74 years since Mort graduated from law school, he says firms have grown and spread around the globe, and the profession has become more of an "industry." He advises younger lawyers to work as hard as they can, but to "keep public service very much in mind." Mort's been honored for his longtime service, with awards ranging from the Alexander Hamilton Award (the highest given by the Treasury Secretary) to the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law (UVA Law's highest honor). Seeing the 50th anniversary of the firm he founded is "very rewarding," Mort says. When it opened its doors, "I think we were regarded as the hot firm in town," he told us with a chuckle, "And I still think we're pretty hot."