The painful tax deadline is behind us now, but a bruising presidential campaign still lies ahead. What better time to sneak a peek at some of the candidates' federal income tax returns?
Can you really glean a better sense of a person by looking at a boring tax return? I'll take the perspective lurking in a candidate's IRS Form 1040 over a canned resume any day of the week.
My desk is littered with copies of the 2003 income tax returns recently filed by President George Bush and wife Laura, Vice President Dick Cheney and wife Lynne, and Democratic candidate John Kerry. Kerry filed individually, presumably to add some distance and privacy to the finances of his very wealthy wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Bush made more money last year from investments in treasury notes and royalties in the oil industry than he was paid in salary as President of the United States.
Cheney made more last year than the other two politicians combined, thanks largely to investments from the enormous $36-million payout he received several years ago as the former CEO of Halliburton. That's the same Houston energy services company now enjoying billion-dollar federal contracts in Iraq but also losing more than its share of employees deployed there during the recent surge of violence.
Kerry, a candidate with an apparent taste for high-end art, earned as much in capital gains in 2003 from the sale of a 17th-century Dutch painting as he made in salary as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
Amazing what lurks in the tax filings of politicians.
Sure, Bush, Cheney and Kerry are all rich, multimillionaire guys. That seems a prerequisite these days when running for the White House, though the demand that candidates have deep pockets seems to grow ever greater. Last year, most Americans were lucky to earn even a modest percentage of what any of these candidates paid in taxes.
Absolutely, the vice president is a lot richer than his boss, mainly because of Cheney's big cash-out from Halliburton.
And yes, Kerry may be worth several measly millions or so, but wife Terry holds the big purse. She's worth some $600-million that she inherited from her first husband - ketchup heir and Republican Sen. John Heinz - after he died in a plane crash in 1991.
Before moving on to more revealing nuggets in the candidate's tax filings, there is one caveat. Some of their tax returns are only partially disclosed. So we can look only at the parts made public and wonder about the rest.
George and Laura Bush reported adjusted gross income last year of $822,126 and paid $227,490 in federal income taxes. Most of Bush's personal wealth came from the sale, just 10 years ago, of his stake in the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball franchise. Most of Bush's money now sits in a blind trust called the Lone Star Trust. It generated more than $395,000 in interest income for the president last year.
A big change in 2003 for the Bush couple? It was the first year they did not declare as dependents their now-adult daughters, Barbara and Jenna. (So much for those deductions.)
The Bushes did contribute more than $68,000 last year to such charities as the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David, churches in Texas and Washington, and a clinic. The Bush tax returns are handled each year by Northern Trust Co.
The Cheneys enjoyed adjusted gross income last year of nearly $1.3-million. Included in their combined salary income of $454,301 is Dick Cheney's $198,600 pay as vice president. Wife Lynne received income from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group in Washington, and from her role as a board member for Reader's Digest.
In addition to the couple's income from Treasury notes and investments in real estate funds, Lynne Cheney earned more than $327,000 from Simon & Schuster for her books (including the kids' stories America: A Patriotic Primer and A is for Abigail). Most of the royalties from books was donated to charity. The couple owed $253,067 in federal taxes, about 20 percent of their adjusted gross income. Their return was done by KPMG in Dallas.
Kerry had adjusted gross income of $395,338 last year - modest when compared to Cheney and Bush. On top of a salary of $147,818 as a senator, Kerry reported a capital gain of nearly $146,000 from his share of the $1.35-million sale last year of a painting by Dutch seascape artist Adam Willaerts. The painting had been purchased for $1-million in 1996.
Among the $43,650 in cash given to charities last year by Kerry, who served in the Vietnam war, $25,000 went to New England shelters for homeless veterans. Kerry's book, A Call to Service, generated $89,000 last year. He paid $90,575 in federal income taxes. His tax return was handled by Federal Street Capital Partners in Boston.
As several publications, including the National Review, note, Kerry's 2003 tax return shows how deeply the candidate's standard of living is bolstered by his wife's wealth. The most obvious example? Kerry's $147,818 salary as a U.S. senator last year was not enough to cover the property taxes on multiple homes owned by the couple.
That's one reason during last year's primary that Kerry loaned his campaign about $6-million by taking a second mortgage on his Boston home.
The good news is, these candidates agreed to disclose at least a portion of their federal tax returns. The bad news is, none of the partial returns give a complete money picture.
And in Kerry's case, his individual tax return begs a question. If he wins the presidency, will the public demand more disclosure of the real money behind the throne? After all, what president in recent memory came with a spouse worth hundreds of millions?
Earlier this week, Teresa Heinz Kerry said she would continue philanthropy work - she heads the $1.2-billion Heinz Foundation - but avoid any policymaking role in the White House.
That may not be enough to satisfy a public grown accustomed to vetting the tax returns of White House residents.