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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
Previous: Highway Injustice?--A Brother's Story | Next: Slap! Bad Imus! Ok, Now Everybody Back to Your Raunchy Radio.


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I have noted over the years that folks that tout their integrity the loudest often stoop the lowest when they hit desperate straits. I imagine we will see plenty of this, in both parties, in what promises to be a totally sleazy election cycle.

Posted by: gitarre | April 9, 2007 8:31 AM

A very fitting post, Marc, coming on the heels of McCain's appearance on 60 Minutes last night, when Scott Pelley made him squirm about the fact that McCain has taken shot after shot at Don Rumsfeld over Iraq, but has been strangely silent about the President's responsibility for this fiasco. McCain is a man who is seeing his last hope of the presidency slip away in the violence of Iraq, so he's willing to use anything or anyone who might help--and that includes Fred "I Was Only Following Orders" Malek.

Posted by: Jack | April 9, 2007 8:58 AM

Can't a person ever rehabilitate themselves for something they did over 35 years ago? Two liberals that I admire greatly were former Klansmen, Robert Byrd and Hugo Black. People make stupid decisions or lack courage when they are younger, but later change.

Posted by: E | April 9, 2007 10:04 AM

I'm ambivalent about this situation.

Like E, I wonder what is required to rehabilitate oneself for actions such as those of Malek. The comments from the people hurt by Malek's actions are compelling, and Malek has, after all, lived and prospered in the years since his actions during the Nixon administration.

It seems tough, in the land of second chances, to be held accountable for actions that happened so long ago, but maybe it is enough that he wasn't punished legally and has not otherwise been prevented from living his life as he wanted.

His presence in McCain's campaign may prove to be an embarrassment or, at least, a distraction, something McCain can ill afford.

Posted by: THS | April 9, 2007 10:36 AM

Why are mainstream Jewish organizations (like the Anti-Defamation League) silent about this disgraceful appointment? Why are they not demanding that McCain explain why he has given this hack for Nixon's anti-Semitic scheme such a prominent position in his election campaign? I sense that such organizations are more preoccupied with trying to silence anyone (Jew and non-Jew alike) who dares criticize Israeli policies than make sure acts of anti-Semitism do not go unpunished.

Posted by: Brian Globerman | April 9, 2007 11:47 AM

I am a little ambivilent about this. As a Jew I was outraged when this episode reached the light of day and when Malek admitted his role in it.

I do think that people who apologize for what they did 36 years ago can go on with their lives.

But I think the issue here is clearly not Malek but McCain. Is he so desparate that he is willing to deal with Malek's background to raise money. That is a sad statement for a man who was once considered the darling of the independents for his being above regular politics. Clearly Mr. McCain has come down from his high perch and now wallows in the mud that he criticized. I understand politics well. And I understand the need to raise money. I just think Mr. McCain has again tarnished him image with this appointment.

Posted by: peter | April 9, 2007 12:16 PM

I have been thoroughly unimpressed by the pandering positions, the political theater staged by Sen. McCain in recent weeks. He has apparently decided that attaching himself to the issue du jour and spinning it McCain style will win the hearts of the American people, but it doesn't seem to be working. It seems every week the media show us what's in his latest bag of tricks... it's starting to reek of desperation. I, for one, am exhausted of the Senator. He seems like a lovely gentleman, but the sun has set on a Presidential bid.

Posted by: Mel | April 9, 2007 12:28 PM

Marc, Why are you taken aback by McCain's hiring of Fred Malek? Long ago McCain decided to ink his deal with Lucifer and do anything it would take to become President.

Posted by: Mister Methane | April 9, 2007 2:23 PM

Marc: In your own words, "Perhaps in part to ameliorate the impact of his history, Malek invited Jeffrey Zients, a highly respected D.C. entrepreneur and financier who is Jewish, to be his partner in the [baseball] ownership group, and Zients argues strongly that Malek has never shown the slightest sign of anti-Semitism."

-- Potomac Confidential, WaPo, November 3, 2005

Just sayin' . . .

Posted by: Mike Licht | April 9, 2007 2:28 PM

Demotion? Stigma? Sorry, Marc, and my apologies to those who lost a GS-whatever; but to compare this to Nazi Germany is itself an obscenity. To even suggest a comparison... you owe an apology to the memory of the millions who LOST THEIR LIVES under the most horrific of circumstances, and to their (any) survivors.

Posted by: Portia | April 9, 2007 4:24 PM

I'm going to chime in with the "uncomfortable" comment . . .

caveats: I realize the memo was not inconsequential, as Marc points out (incidentally, no one ever talks about that side -- the actual harm side -- of the story, only that the memo was written. seems to me like that's the story -- that people were actually demoted as a result of the memo -- not that some mid-level staffer backed down to his boss, the President of the United States of America. not defending Malek's decision to go ahead and write the memo, but just saying that I don't envy him being put in that position. he may have been older and more than just a mere low-level staffer, but can't we all agree that resigning for honorable reasons at 34 in some ways is much more difficult than at 24?)

I got sidetracked -- anyways, Malek's already lost out on a few opportunities because of one memo, if Marc is correct that it cost him the Nats, and it cost him deputy chair of the RNC. I wonder why he keeps getting offers -- he must be really good at what he does. if he weren't good, why would he keep getting opportunities when folks know he's going to bring this (same) controversy along with him?

someone older than me will have to address this, but is it because of Nixon? there's still so much emotional baggage people carry about Nixon that I can't help but think that's why people keep getting upset. otherwise, it doesn't really make sense in terms of our culture of redemption. someone already mentioned Byrd and Black, but what about Reinquist (or Imus, for that matter)?

unfortunately, I worry that forty years from now, my generation is still going to be fighting out the Bush presidency by proxy, and we're going to impose our generation's silly ideological struggle on our kids.

Posted by: OD | April 9, 2007 4:35 PM

calm down, Portia.

first of all, Marc quoted one of the Jewish employees who was singled out by name. it's not something he wrote himself. and the guy himself said the comparison felt wrong, but felt the comparison explained it best. I mean, Nazi Germany did single out people for being Jewish. If you were singled out for being Jewish, what would you compare that to? Would you ever describe it as feeling like an African American being forced to ride at the back of the bus? Of course you wouldn't, you would choose something that most closely tracked what happened to you.

should everyone related to the many more millions of people who died because of Stalin or Pol Pot get offended everytime someone like you elevates the Holocaust above all other mass atrocities?

Posted by: OD | April 9, 2007 4:45 PM

I agree that the real question is McCain, not Malek. McCain has shown bad judgment, repeatedly. He often recognizes when he makes a mistake, which is a good, and unusual thing-- but he does keep making serious mistakes, and hasn't seemed to learn how to think about what he's doing-- which is a bad thing.

Posted by: MattF | April 9, 2007 4:51 PM

speaking of not being able to shake your past -- whatever happened to all the animosity between mccain and the local arizona press? has that subsided in the last 10 years, or has the national media just ignored it? I remember it being a big deal at one point (kind of like the whole "nation loves guiliani, but the nyc press hates him").

Posted by: Anonymous | April 9, 2007 4:54 PM

The precedent set by Mr. Malek, unfortunately, lingered on. under Secretary Donovan in the Us Department of Lasbor. I personally saw a typerwritten list sjown to me by one of our secretaries which named professionals in the Empoyment and Training Administration as persons we wish to remove from any position of responsibilities. Incidentally , the list included among oehrs all Jewish names and also many African -Americans. That was when the Assistant Secreary resposnosible for Employment and Administration was Albert Angrisanni. The list I saw was established at his direction. O ne of the C position type I was informed involved allegedly the husband of a niece of Senator Hatch. So, Mr. Malek did, allegedly , set a dangerous precedence which cannot be discounted now. It will , in my view, hurt in some quarters the campaign of Senator Mc Cain!

Posted by: Fred Kahn | April 9, 2007 9:24 PM

Mr. Fisher; Regarding my precedent posting regarding the after effects of Malek's memorandum listing Jewish Professionnals in the Us department off Labor. the precedent was unfortunately followed under Secretary Donovan and Asistant Albert Angrisani, I was at the time a labor economist in the Employment and Training Administration of the US Department of Labor . I am retired now over 14 years ( I received a Distinguished Career Service Award by the Secretary of Labor). So, I have no ax to grind,except to state what I saw with my own eyes. Here follows the bio of the gentleman, Mr. Albert Angrisani.....Albert Angrisani joined Greenfield Online as President and Chief Executive Officer and was elected a Director of the Company on September 29, 2005. In 2004, Angrisani formed, as President, Angrisani Partners, LLC, an advisory firm for troubled and underperforming companies. From November 2001 to April 2004, Mr. Angrisani was President and Chief Operating Officer and a director of Harris Interactive Inc., the world's largest Internet-based marketing research firm and parent of The Harris Pollâ„¢. He led the turnaround at Harris, which included quality programs that resulted in improved customer satisfaction. Under his leadership, Harris achieved operating profitability and delivered over $250 million in incremental shareholder value.

Prior to joining Harris, Mr. Angrisani was the President and Chief Executive Officer of Total Research Corporation, which he merged with Harris Interactive in 2001. From July 1998 to November 2001, Mr. Angrisani served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Total Research Corporation and as director of Total Research Corporation from November 1994 to November 2001. In addition, from 1980 to 1984, Mr. Angrisani served in President Reagan's Administration as the United States Assistant Secretary of Labor and Chief of Staff. As second in command at the Department of Labor, Mr. Angrisani managed $33 billion in annual budget outlays, and 10,000 employees. From 1972-1980 Mr. Angrisani was a Vice President at Chase Manhattan Bank. Mr. Angrisani earned an A.P.C. from New York University, an M.B.A. from Fairleigh Dickenson University and a B.A. from Washington & Lee University.

Posted by: Fred Kahn, Bethesda, md | April 9, 2007 9:40 PM

I am sick and tired (I know it's early) of people talking about all the 'mistakes' McCain has made. Was trying to mend fences with Falwell a mistake? I don't think so. What about LEADING the charge against the mismanagement of the war? WHAT OTHER REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE HAS CRITICIZED THIS ADMINISTRATION --- FOR ANYTHING....? If McCain has made mistakes (and I mean major mistakes that may doom his candidancy) is that he didn't go with the flow. Democrats want him to attack Bush and in doing so, he will surely lose, and republicans want a Limbaugh clone and in doing that he wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Does he pander some? Sure--but so do 'the great Elmer Fudd wannabe" Mitt and 'I will only support conservative justices' Guliani. I don't care what you say, McCain is an honorable man who has fought for and suffered for this country in ways most of us can't even imagine. I trust him completely and will stand with him til the bitter end.

Posted by: SteveinVa | April 10, 2007 1:15 AM

Having worked at Mr. Malek's firm for a number of years, it pains me to see such an unbalanced portrayal. For all of his good work and success, members of the Post editorial staff continue to deamonize a man for incidents that happened over 30 years ago. While these things shouldn't be overlooked, Mr. Malek should be judged on his entire life experience.

While he did not ultimately become the owner of a baseball franchise, it could easily be argued that Mr. Malek and his team were a significant reason that DC ultimately got a baseball team. Mayor Williams and others turned to Mr. Malek for his leadership in spearheading efforts to get a baseball team for the city. It was he and his investors that spent their own money and significant time lobbying Major League Baseball and building support in the business community for a team. Mr. Malek and his group, while they would have enjoyed team ownership, made this effort as a way to give back to the community. And for that, we should at least acknowledge that contribution. Mr. Malek and his wife have been a fixture on the social scene, giving and helping to raise many thousands of dollars for local charities.

In his personal life, Mr. Malek interacts with a diversity of people. At Thayer Capital, Mr. Malek has had a diverse staff which including African Americans, Jews, Women and out gays. While all of those people clearly do not share all or even most of Mr. Malek's political views, I don't think that you would find anyone who knows him that would be able to cite any incidence of bigotry or bias. In fact, more than many Americans, Mr. Malek has learned from his earlier mistakes in judgement (which he has never denied)and become a better, more inclusive person as a result. As a "minority" person at his organization, I can tell you that in my experience I found Mr. Malek a man who treated me and others very well and who I respected, in spite if our different background and political beliefs.

It is with this longer life history that Fred Malek comes today and should be judged. And while I support Mr.Malek personally, I more importantly urge readers to support a Democratic party that seeks to help those middle class and lower income Americans who need assistance more than Republicans who seek to protect and enrich the wealthy like Mr. Malek.

Posted by: Thayer Friend | April 10, 2007 12:58 PM

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