Colin Powell, frontman.

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May 26 2005 6:59 PM

Colin Powell, Frontman

The former secretary of state spruces up Fred Malek's image.

Fred, stop rollin' with Colin. Click image to expand.
Fred, stop rollin' with Colin

You're Colin Powell. You've recently departed the Bush State Department, your Last-Reasonable-Man halo only slightly dented by your erroneous speech to the United Nations in February 2003 about Saddam's supposed cache of chemical and biological weapons. Mostly you're remembered as the guy who told Bush, when he contemplated invading Iraq, "You break it, you own it." You smell good. You look good. Now let's see what that reputation will buy.

According to the Washington Post, it will buy membership in the Washington Baseball Club, a group of investors with an inside track to acquiring the Nationals, Washington's new baseball team. Three years ago, the Washington Baseball Club entered into what it terms "an exclusive agreement with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission to work together to bring Major League Baseball back to Washington, DC." Now baseball has arrived, and the Washington Baseball Club is the odds-on favorite to end up owning the Nationals.

But there's just one little problem—so small I hate to bring it up, really. The investment group's leader is Frederic V. Malek, who did something kind of naughty three decades ago. We all make mistakes, right? Malek's mistake—hey, you've probably been tempted to do the same once or twice—was agreeing to be Richard Nixon's Jew-counter.

It's one of the more gothic stories about Nixon related in Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days. As they tell it, late in 1971—the same year, coincidentally, that the Washington Senators moved to Texas and changed their name to the Rangers—Nixon

summoned the White House personnel chief, Fred Malek, to his office to discuss a "Jewish cabal" in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The "cabal," Nixon said, was tilting economic figures to make his Administration look bad. How many Jews were there in the bureau? he wanted to know. Malek reported back on the number, and told the President that the bureau's methods of weighing statistics were normal procedure that had been in use for years.

In 1988, when George Bush père installed Malek as deputy chairman for the Republican National Committee, Woodward dusted off his notes and, with the Washington Post's Walter Pincus, further revealed that two months after Malek filed a memo on the matter—he'd counted 13 Jews, though his methodology was shaky—a couple of them were demoted. (Malek denied any role and said Nixon's notions of a "Jewish cabal" were "ridiculous" and "nonsense.") The 1988 story raised a predictable ruckus, and Malek beat a hasty retreat from the RNC. As exiles go, Malek's was pretty painless. He still got to run the 1988 Republican Convention (and in 1992 he would be Bush père's campaign manager). He joined George W. Bush's syndicate to purchase the Rangers, he went on the board of the American-Israel Friendship Society, he took over Northwest Airlines, and he started an investment firm, Thayer Capital Partners.

Malek has gotten an enormous amount of press coverage in recent years as the person working hardest to bring baseball to Washington. But his Jew-counting past has gone virtually unmentioned. Searching Nexis for the past two years, I couldn't find a single reference to the episode. One explanation for the silence may be that, according to David A. Fahrenthold and Bill Brubaker in the April 8 Washington Post, the Washington Baseball Club has helped media celebrities like Morton Kondracke * get season tickets behind home plate and along the first base line. In addition, David Bradley, owner of two well-respected magazines—the Atlantic and National Journal—is himself a partner in the Washington Baseball Club.

Still, the story isn't going to stay buried forever, and when it surfaces again, Malek's group may lose its advantage to one of the other eight groups vying to purchase the Nationals. One strategy Malek's employed has been to load up the Washington Baseball Club's membership with socially prominent African-Americans—Former Fannie Mae chairman Franklin Raines, former Washington Redskin Darrell Green, and (inevitably) Vernon Jordan—and to put front and center its ambition to get more blacks interested in baseball. An uncharitable person might observe that Malek has gone from counting Jews to counting blacks, though this time, obviously, in service of a more laudable social goal. (Despite low prices and the location of its current stadium in a heavily black area of D.C., the Nationals are still drawing an overwhelmingly white crowd.) But the recruitment of Powell—a onetime Malek protege—transcends race, and brings to Malek's quest a heightened respectability that may serve to erase Malek's earlier misdeed altogether. Powell surely knows this, and it's disappointing to see him spend his prestige on this unworthy enterprise.

Correction, June 3: An earlier version of this column cited Paul Begala as having gotten preferential treatment from the Washington Baseball Club. In fact, he did not. Here's what actually happened, according to Begala:

"I was assigned not-very-good-seats. I turned them down. Then my wife's friend, Ruth, said her friend Pete (are you following this?) had six good seats and was looking for someone to split them with. Since we have four boys, six was perfect for us. But we did not pull any strings. Instead, I turned to a higher power:  my wife's friend Ruth's friend Pete, whom my wife saw at a neighborhood party. I've no idea how Pete got 'em, but I assure you I had nothing to do with it."

Ruth's friend Pete works for James V. Kimsey, who is a partner in the Washington Baseball Club. But since Pete was simply sharing his own tickets with Begala's family, I'm willing to believe that in this case the Washington Baseball Club connection is mere coincidence. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.