Following Orders: John McCain's New Money Man
In the endless marathon that presidential politics has become, John McCain, like any other candidate, needs big money, and he needs it fast and soon. So McCain has signed up a new national finance co-chair who has been, as McCain's press release says, "a pioneer in four professions including corporate management, government, politics, and finance." This Renaissance man is none other than Fred Malek, the D.C. financier and longtime Republican fundraiser who did stints running Marriott Hotels and Northwest Airlines.
But Fred Malek is not just a business success or a GOP go-to guy. He's also the man who stood out even in the ethical swamp of the Nixon White House as a soldier who would sink to unfathomable lows to do the president's dirty work.
A couple of summers ago, when it still wasn't clear which ownership group Major League Baseball would choose to take over the Washington Nationals, Malek, then one of the leading contenders for the team, invited me to lunch at the Willard Hotel. He wanted to clear up the lingering stench that he knew was clouding his chances at landing the franchise for his Washington Baseball Club partnership.
We talked for a couple of hours about the business of baseball and about Malek's extraordinary career in both the public and private sectors. And then we got to the real issue at hand: In 1971, when Malek was the personnel chief in Richard Nixon's White House, the president summoned his aide and launched into a classic Nixonian paranoid rant about a "Jewish cabal" over at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Jews, Nixon said, were cooking the books, twisting the nation's official labor stats to make the economy look worse than it really was--all to make Nixon look bad. The president ordered Malek to look into the matter by counting the number of Jews in the agency.
Malek did as he was told and actually produced a report to the president in which the aide sought to identify Jews by examining their names. He tallied up the supposed members of the tribe and gave the info to the Conspirator-in-Chief.
At our lunch, Malek was up front about the fact that he had done Nixon's bidding. In strong language, he lamented what he called a dumb and immoral act. Malek said he had resisted Nixon's order, at first ignoring it. Then, when H.R. Haldeman, the president's chief of staff, called Malek in and insisted that Nixon would not forget his command, Malek still delayed putting together the list. Only after Haldeman told him yet again that the president would not back off did Malek do as he was told and compile the catalogue of Jews.
Malek described the incident to me as a youthful mistake, a failure to stand up against what he knew was wrong. Malek recited a long list of Jewish friends who had absolved him of his wayward behavior and urged me to contact some of those Jews who would testify to his honest and unbigoted decades of service since the Nixon era.
But when I asked Malek whether he had thought back then about defying the president, resigning from office, or publicly denouncing Nixon for his bigotry, the financier said that he had never seriously considered any such course of action.
It would certainly be hard--extremely hard--for a teenager or perhaps even a 23-year-old to stand up against their boss, let alone against the leader of the free world. But in 1971, Fred Malek was no intern, no junior clerk. He was 34 years old, nearly old enough to serve as president. He was a mid-level official in the White House, experienced and senior enough to be summoned to a meeting with the prez.
I liked Malek; I found him open, thoughtful and reasonably self-critical. I accepted his statement that he was no anti-Semite. But I found his explanation of his role in the making of the list of Jews thoroughly unpersuasive. In a professional sport that is struggling to revive its links with a lost black fan base, in a business that was starting out fresh in a majority black city, I concluded there was no place for a man who had undertaken such a sleazy and bigoted mission. So I wrote in the Post that Fred Malek "has no business representing this city in any capacity."
The day after I wrote that in 2002, I heard from a Montgomery County man whom Malek had included on his list of Jews. Long since retired, the man told me the story of what it was like to be singled out by the White House staff as a Jew. "It was something I never could have imagined in this country," the man said. "It felt dirty. It felt like something--and I hate to use this comparison--it felt like Nazi Germany." Two of the Jews named on Malek's list were demoted to less important posts in the agency. All of the people on the list, this man said, felt demeaned by their own government, their own country.
Of course, Malek's group didn't get the team. Did the "Jewish cabal" episode play a role in Commissioner Bud Selig's decision? Was baseball further disenchanted with Malek after learning of Malek's role in an ugly incident in which a bunch of drinking men "killed, skinned, gutted and barbecued" a dog, as Post op-ed columnist Colbert King reported in 2006. (Malek, 22 at the time of this incident, was arrested, but animal cruelty charges were dismissed after one of Malek's friends testified that he alone had killed and cooked the animal in some sort of sick show for his friends.)
Selig has said his decision about who should own the Nats was based on other factors, but we may never know how that story really went down with the commissioner, who is Jewish.
Now it's John McCain's turn to decide how fit Fred Malek is to serve in a position that not only requires strong business skills, but stands for something larger than the bottom line. How a presidential candidate assembles his staff, and whom he chooses for key positions, is one of the most useful guides voters can have to how the candidate might manage if elected. McCain is one of the most resolute and apparently honest figures in the highest echelon of American government. His strong standing across the country stems in good part from his reputation as a straight shooter, a guy who seems able to cut through the complex network of half-truths that add up to strategy and policy making in politics.
But by bringing Malek on board, McCain descends to the level of the rest of the bunch. An alliance with Malek is a symbol of politics as usual. It's a willful embrace of a man who did something egregiously wrong at an age when he had a responsibility to refuse the order.
In 1988, when Malek was appointed deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, he was forced to resign after reports of the 1971 list of Jews incident appeared in the press. Two decades later, John McCain has an opportunity to do the right thing and wash his campaign of the likes of a man who would single out his fellow Americans for abuse because of their religious background.
By Marc Fisher |
April 9, 2007; 7:29 AM ET
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