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Fred Malek: It's not the 'Jew-counting,' it's the deception

I caught only snippets of news during my vacation, but I couldn't miss the story reported by R. Jeffrey Smith and by the Plum Line's Greg Sargent Thursday. The recap: Fred Malek, who in 1971 aided President Richard Nixon by naming the "ethnics" in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has become chairman of Gov. Bob McDonnell's Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring and chairman of the new conservative group the American Action Network. It's the former job, along with the release of new memos from the Nixon White House, that has sparked a new round of attacks on Malek.

Why is this a story? I've had some trouble figuring that out. Malek's work from 39 years ago has haunted him since it was reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1976, but it didn't prevent his rebirth as a successful businessman, Republican activist, and party power-broker. In 1988, The last time the story broke -- aided, as it has been now, by newly released memos -- Malek had been appointed deputy chairman of the RNC during a presidential campaign. He quit that post, apologized, and explained himself. From a September 11, 1988 Washington Post story:

If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone's employment status [because of their religious or ethnic affiliation], I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused.

This apology and Malek's apparent contrition since then, have been enough for Republicans who see this as a witch hunt. If they're surprised at the rage against Malek, they should be -- the roster of "scandalized" Republicans who've gone on to become party statesman includes several Nixon-era and Reagan-era figures whom, in the minds of conservatives, were unfairly demonized by the left. Think Pat Buchanan, think Oliver North, think -- for a while -- Richard Nixon himself.

There's one problem. As Slate's Tim Noah documented in a story that did not get enough attention, Malek's explanation for his role in 1971 does not hold up to the facts.

Here, remember, is how Malek described his role the last time this was raised.

If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone's employment status [because of their religious or ethnic affiliation], I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused.

And here is a section of a Sept. 8, 1971 memo from Malek that Noah obtained last month. Remember, this followed a July memo, obtained by the Post, in which the numbers of "ethnics" in the BLS were produced.

Malekmemo

There are two huge problems here. One, Malek has not been entirely honest about his Nixon-era assignment -- he did, indeed, recommend changing the employment status of Jewish employees and reorganizing the department to promote "loyal Republican economists." He's apologized, but he's also failed to tell the truth about what he apologized for. Two, we're still in the throes of a Beltway debate over whether the White House skirted the law by suggesting possible jobs to candidates it wanted to get rid of in two U.S. Senate races. And here you have a new conservative think tank run by a man who recommended giving and taking away federal jobs based on party loyalty and ethnicity.

I'd love for this to be a case of Democrats throwing up an unfair distraction, and Malek's friends are credible when they say this was a lone incident of bias, that he's never shown any since then. But Malek really needs to explain what he did in 1971 if he's going to remain a credible conservative leader.

Here, for background, is the Sept. 11, 1988 Washington Post story that first singed Malek.

Bush Associate, Under Nixon, Surveyed Jews in BLS
Walter Pincus, Bob Woodward, Washington Post Staff Writers

Frederic V. Malek, chosen recently by Republican presidential nominee George Bush as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, compiled figures in 1971 on the number of Jews among top officials of the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the direction of then-President Richard M. Nixon, who had ordered Malek to investigate what notes taken by White House aides described as a "Jewish cabal" at the agency.

At the time, Malek was Nixon's White House personnel chief and had been assigned to evaluate the BLS staff. On July 27, 1971, Malek reported to H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, that 13 of 35 top BLS officials were Jewish in a memo that reporters found last week in the archives of Nixon's presidency.

Less than two months after Malek's memo, two senior BLS officials who are Jewish were ousted from their posts and moved to less visible positions in the Labor Department agency. They were Peter Henle, chief economist for BLS, and Harold Goldstein, the director of current employment analysis.

Malek, whom Bush picked to manage the Republican National Convention in August and later moved to the RNC deputy slot with day-to-day responsibility for the party's fall campaign, said Friday that he recalled the incident, and had gathered the statistics, "but in no way did I take part in moving anyone out of the BLS."

Allegations of anti-Semitism became an issue for the Bush campaign last week after a Jewish newspaper charged that several members of a Bush advisory committee on ethnic issues had past affiliations that appeared to be anti-Jewish. On Thursday, Bush's aides asked for the resignation of one member of the ethnic issues panel who had strongly defended an accused Nazi war criminal. On Friday, Bush staunchly defended his record as an opponent of "bigotry wherever it takes place," and said: "I just don't want people associated with me who have a record of bigotry of any kind, racial bigotry, religious bigotry, whatever it is."

Bush campaign officials were given details of this story yesterday. Press secretary Sheila Tate had no comment and Bush was unavailable for comment.

A senior campaign adviser said, "We're unable to respond to a story we have not seen, but we are very troubled by the story as it has been related to us."

Malek was hosting a meeting of Republican Party officials from around the country this weekend here.

In 1971 Nixon thought that the BLS officials were twisting unemployment data to put his administration in an unfavorable light, according to Malek and memos and notes of meetings filed in the Nixon Presidential Archives in Alexandria. In a telephone interview, Malek said he studied the matter and found the BLS procedures normal, but Nixon persisted.

In at least five White House meetings in July 1971, Haldeman's handwritten notes show that the president ordered that Malek ascertain the number of Jews in the top ranks of the BLS. Those notes were discovered last spring in a review of unindexed Nixon files for a series of articles on Vice President Bush.

On July 5, 1971, the notes say, "Malek really check out Jewish cabals." The July 9, 1971, notes say "Malek -- Jews in BLS etc." On July 24, 1971, "How many Jews -- Malek." On July 25, 1971, "Malek get the [number] of Jews in BLS," and on July 30, 1971: "Where are the figs on BLS ethnics." According to archivists working on the Nixon papers, these are typical of notations Haldeman made in recording instructions from Nixon.

White House aide John D. Ehrlichman's notes of the July 24, 1971, meeting under the topic of the BLS say, "Malek a Jew cabal" and then "they only talk to Jews."

Malek was given the assignment because as White House personnel chief he oversaw all top-level federal appointments, making recommendations on who should be hired or fired. In addition, according to a Haldeman-to-Malek memo at the time, Nixon "would like you to develop and implement a plan for strengthening the BLS that includes an evaluation of top personnel and the replacement of those people whose performance has been poor."

The president, the memo said, was dissatisfied with "the general lack of responsiveness and insubordination demonstrated by certain top officials of the BLS."

The apparent trigger for Nixon's outburst against the BLS was a March 1971 incident in which Goldstein told reporters that unemployment data was "mixed" at a time when the administration had described it as "heartening."

Two days after Nixon raised the subject on July 24, Haldeman wrote Malek a memo asking, "What's the status of your analysis of the BLS, specifically of the 21 key people?" In the July 24 White House meeting, it was disclosed that 16 of the 21 were Democrats, one Republican and four independents or of unknown party affiliation. Haldeman also asked Malek about the number of Jews, phrasing the question in terms of "their demographic background."

On July 27, Malek replied in a memo to Haldeman marked "Confidential" that he had checked out 35 of the top 50 names on the agency's organization chart and that 25 were Democrats, one Republican, four independents or of unknown affiliation and five not registered voters.

In a reference to the Jewish employees, Malek wrote that "13 of the 35 fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed." A handwritten notation, whose author could not be determined, was added to the bottom of his memo saying that "Most of these are at the top."

Malek on Friday acknowledged that this "demographic criterion" was whether an employee was Jewish. Asked if he thought it appropriate for the government to determine the religious affiliation of employes, Malek replied, "No."

"If the president of the United States asks you to get [political party] registration information, that's routine," Malek said. "Anything else might be questionable . . . . When you are in the White House you get lots of directives that you don't agree with."

He said the party affiliations were done by checking voter registration rolls in the various jurisdictions. Asked how he or his staff determined whether a BLS employee was Jewish, Malek said, "I don't know how you do it . . . guessing, the names."

Malek said that Nixon's notions of a "Jewish cabal" were "ridiculous" and "nonsense."

White House pressure on Malek to have changes made at BLS continued through the summer, according to memos in the Nixon archives.

On Aug. 31, 1971, Haldeman was told by an aide that Malek had "nothing new" to report because then-Secretary of Labor James D. Hodgson, who had overall supervision of BLS, did not want to create political problems at that time by shaking up the agency. According to Ehrlichman's notes, the president had been told in July that "BLS changes by Sept . . . Goldstein 'gone' by Sept."

On Sept. 2, 1971, Haldeman's aide noted that Malek met with Hodgson that day and "Malek will have final memo" on Sept. 7. Malek said, "I have no recollection of a meeting with Jim Hodgson."

Hodgson said yesterday that he also had no recollection of the meeting. "I don't remember Fred being in on this subject at all," Hodgson said, adding that the person he dealt with on what he called "the flap at the BLS" was Charles W. Colson, the controversial special counsel to Nixon.

On Sept. 8, 1971, Malek wrote Haldeman a memo "re Bureau of Labor Statistics," but the document has been withdrawn from public access because its disclosure "would violate an individual's rights," according to a notation in the National Archives files. Objection to public release of the document was made by lawyers for Nixon.

Malek said he could not recall writing any such memo. He added that overall he handled the presidential directive "responsibly" and that is why either Nixon or Haldeman used other channels to have the officials transferred. "If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone's employment status [because of their religious or ethnic affiliation], I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused," Malek said yesterday.

Later that September, Henle and Goldstein were transferred within the BLS. Goldstein could not be reached last week. Henle said he did not wish to discuss the incident.

Records in the Nixon archives show that 134 documents have been withdrawn from Malek's White House files by Nixon's lawyers who asserted their release could involve invasion of privacy or violation of other rights.

Dozens of other documents filed in the Nixon archives authored by Malek or directed to him also have been withdrawn by Nixon's lawyers. One knowledgeable source said that Nixon's representatives carefully went through the files of former Nixon aides who have played or are playing roles in the Bush campaign.

In September 1971, Malek was put in charge of a White House effort to close down leaks to reporters of nonclassified material from the administration. In that capacity Malek recommended the use of polygraphs to question officials suspected of leaking in "nonsecurity cases." Malek also headed the effort to make the Internal Revenue Service more responsive to White House direction at a time when the White House was trying to harass some of its political opponents with IRS audits.

On Sept. 16, 1971, Haldeman took his top staff on the presidential yacht Sequoia for an evening dinner cruise. In notes for a toast that Haldeman drafted for that occasion -- now on file in the Nixon archives -- the chief of staff proposed to refer jokingly to Malek as "the Axe" whose "fame began" when he personally fired numerous top officials of the Interior Department the previous November. Malek, Haldeman noted, was now a figure on the Washington social scene, but Malek and his wife could "never get anyone to come to their house because they won't open envelopes" from Malek, fearing a pink slip was inside.

For the 1972 reelection campaign, Malek was given control over what was termed the "responsiveness" program that was designed to promote Nixon's reelection by using federal grants, contracts and other means to win political support.

Nixon's concern about an alleged "Jewish cabal" in the BLS and Malek's role in reporting back on the numbers was first mentioned in the 1976 book, "The Final Days," about Nixon's last months in office.

In 1982, Malek was appointed by President Reagan to the U.S. Postal Service board of governors. At a March 12, 1982, Senate confirmation hearing, Malek said his participation in the responsiveness program was "a mistake and I regret my role in it."

Bush's selection of Malek to run the New Orleans convention was unusual by Republican standards. The GOP routinely has turned to a team of political consultants who have been involved in running the party convention operations for years. Instead of employing veterans such as William Timmons, who ran Reagan's conventions, Bush told aides he wanted Malek regardless of his lack of experience.

A West Point graduate and former Green Beret, Malek earned a Harvard Business School degree and became a millionaire before he was 30. He came to Washington as a deputy undersecretary of health, education and welfare in the first Nixon administration, and moved over to the White House in 1970. In 1972, he served as deputy in Nixon's reelection committee. He was not implicated in any of the criminal activity of the Watergate scandal. In recent years he worked a a senior executive of the Marriott Corp. Malek reportedly was paid $ 7.8 million last year.

When Malek was named to the RNC, Bush was asked by reporters about his activities in the Nixon administration and responded that time had healed those wounds.

When the convention's operations were set, Malek asked Bush for the job of running his transition operation, preparing for a Bush administration, officials said. Bush instead offered him the RNC post. Although Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. remains party chairman, Malek, with a team of Bush appointees, is running the party apparatus.

Staff writer David Hoffman and staff researcher William F. Powers Jr. contributed to this report.

By David Weigel  |  June 4, 2010; 10:46 AM ET
Categories:  Scandal  
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