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Sorting out the truth in politics

Bill Clinton's remark on release of tax returns is a bit off

The statement

It's "typical" for a presidential candidate to release 10 or 11 years of tax returns.

Former President Bill Clinton, on NBC's Today

The ruling

Mitt Romney has provided his 2010 return and his preliminary return for 2011. He said he will release the final version for 2011, but not those for other years.

Former President Bill Clinton said the usual standard is much higher. "You know, it's typical, I think, that we all release 10, 11 years. I think Sen. McCain released over 20 years of tax returns."

Is it customary to reveal a decade of tax returns?

The high-water mark for disclosure was 30 years, set by Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., in the 1996 election. Second-place honors go to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., for providing 20 years' worth when he ran in 2004, although he had released 15 of those returns before his presidential bid.

After that, there is a tie between Romney's father, George Romney, in 1968 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Both released 12 years of tax returns. Close behind is Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., with 10 when he was Kerry's running mate.

Several candidates released anywhere from six to nine years of tax returns. In 2000, George W. Bush provided nine, and Al Gore provided eight. In the 2008 primary, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., delivered seven, a move that was matched by Hillary Rodham Clinton about a month later. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis released six years of returns.

There is a difference for incumbents and challengers. Ever since 1976, when Jimmy Carter became president, sitting presidents and vice presidents have released their tax returns each year they are in office. By the time re-election rolls around, they have put at least four tax returns into the public record. Challengers generally match or exceed that.

Our colleagues at found that since 1980, only two general election candidates have revealed just two years of tax returns. One was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2008 and the other is Romney.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan offered up just one return.

We should note that Clinton was way off when he said McCain had released 20 years of returns; McCain released only two.

Mathematically speaking, our tally shows the median number of tax returns released to be 7 ½. But individual candidates released anywhere from 30 to one.

Clinton's statement is partially accurate, but it leaves out important details. We rate his statement Half True.

This ruling has been edited for print. Read the full version at

Bill Clinton's remark on release of tax returns is a bit off 08/06/12 [Last modified: Monday, August 6, 2012 9:04pm]
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