Nixon's Jew count: the whole story!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 26 2007 7:07 PM

Nixon's Jew Count: the Whole Story!

A multimedia extravaganza.

It was the last recorded act of official anti-Semitism by the United States government. Boy, was it ever recorded! On Sept. 24, the presidential recordings program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs released transcripts of Nixon White House tapes concerning the unauthorized publication in the New York Times and the Washington Post of the Pentagon Papers. Some of these conversations were previously transcribed by the nonprofit National Security Archive, but many were not. Among the previously untranscribed conversations is President Nixon's historic inquiry into a topic unrelated to Daniel Ellsberg's leak: How many Jews were employed at the Bureau of Labor Statistics?

Loyal readers of this column are aware of my fascination with this repulsive episode. The Miller Center's new transcriptions are accompanied by audio, allowing us not merely to remember this squalid transaction but to relive it. Kenneth J. Hughes, the Miller Center's Nixon tapes editor, has kindly furnished Slate with the memo traffic concerning the Jew count, including a never-before-published memo by White House personnel director Fred Malek confirming the planned transfer of three Jews to less-visible jobs and the effective demotion of a BLS deputy with a Jewish-sounding surname. Malek, today a very wealthy investor, remains active in Republican politics; this past April, he was named national finance co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign. Last year, Malek was edged out by an octogenarian real-estate tycoon to become owner of the Washington Nationals baseball team, despite strong local support. I have my suspicions the Jew-counting episode was a factor in baseball Commissioner Bud Selig's choice, though that isn't the official story.

Malek has publicly expressed regret over this incident, which was first reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1976 book The Final Days. When the story resurfaced with additional details in 1988, it forced Malek to resign as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, a job he'd been given by President George H.W. Bush. Malek told WashingtonPost reporters Woodward and Walter Pincus that Nixon's notion of a "Jewish cabal" that was out to get him was "ridiculous" and "nonsense." He washed clean his sins by plunging into Jewish and pro-Israel philanthropy. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, both granted indulgences for Malek's "mistake," and two of the three BLS employees who were transferred—Peter Henle and Harold Goldstein—told blogger Steven I. Weiss * two years ago that they held no grudge.

But Malek's mea culpa would appear to be incomplete. Malek denied to Woodward and Pincus that he had anything to do with the transfers and that if he'd been asked to reassign anyone based on religious affiliation, he'd have refused. That's hard to square with the newly published memo, which was unavailable to Woodward and Pincus when they wrote their story. But let's not get ahead of the narrative.

Our story begins on the afternoon of July 2, 1971. President Richard Nixon is angered to read in the Washington Star that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has downplayed a drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2 percent to 5.6 percent, attributing it to a statistical quirk. (For details about the BLS interpretation, which was routine and unexceptional, see Hughes' "Nixon vs. the Imaginary Jewish Cabal," posted Sept. 24 on the Web site History News Network.) We join Nixon as he is talking to White House aide Charles Colson. (This is from a newly released Miller Center transcription.)

Colson: We've got the headline of the Star tonight, looking—

Nixon: Yeah, well, they'd have to, wouldn't they?

Colson: They did. They threw in their line that maybe it's a statistical fluke, which some damn fool at the Labor Department said, but … if I can find out who it is, he'll be the first one of the casualties of the Lord High Executioner. (He chuckles.)

Nixon:Well, did—somebody at the Labor Department said it was a statistical fluke?

Colson: Yes, sir. We'll—

[Four-second "privacy" excision]

Nixon: Yeah.

Colson: It's typical of what these bastards in the bureaucracy—

Nixon: I want—I want—I want—really now, we told everybody that's supposed to be here. Now, I'd find out, and then he's got to be fired.

Colson: That's right. You—

Nixon: If he said it. I gave the orders. It was clear. Didn't I?

Colson: Oh, absolutely.

"He" turned out to be Harold Goldstein, assistant commissioner of labor statistics. According to Hughes, Nixon had been wanting to fire Goldstein since the previous January, when Goldstein had publicly (and correctly) termed an unemployment drop of two-tenths of 1 percent "marginally significant." On July 3, Colson advised Nixon (according to a tape available to Hughes but not yet transcribed) that he demand a reorganization of the BLS. "In the process of reorganizing it," Colson said, "I think we'll get this guy's resignation." Nixon agreed and called in White House budget director George Shultz and Labor Secretary James Hodgson. "Well," said Shultz, "I think the only kind of organization that would be sensible under these circumstances is a reorganization that separates Goldstein from the employment, uh, employment figures, and gets him into something else entirely."

Later that day (according to a July 3, 1971, tape widely publicized on its release by the National Archives in 1999), Nixon and Colson, now alone, had the following exchange:

Nixon: Well, listen, are they all Jews over there?

Colson: Every one of them. Well, a couple of exceptions.

Nixon: See my point?

Colson: You know goddamn well they're out to kill us.

Also that day, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, had the following conversation (this, too, is from the July 3, 1971, tape that was released in 1999):

Nixon: Now, point: [Fred] Malek is not Jewish.

Haldeman: No.

Nixon: All right, I want a look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We've got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish … do you understand?

Haldeman: I sure do.

Nixon: The government is full of Jews. Second, most Jews are disloyal. You know what I mean? You have a [White House Counsel Leonard] Garment and a [National Security Adviser Henry] Kissinger and, frankly, a [White House speechwriter William] Safire, and, by God, they're exceptions. But Bob, generally speaking, you can't trust the bastards. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right?

Haldeman: Their whole orientation is against you. In this administration, anyway. And they are smart. They have the ability to do what they want to do—which—is to hurt us.

Three weeks pass. It is now the morning of July 24, 1971, and Nixon, fulminating about Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times and administration leaks, finds his thoughts drifting back to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What follows is from a second new Miller Center transcription (click here and scroll to the bottom):

Nixon: One other thing I want to know. Colson made an interesting study of the BLS crew. He found out of the 21—you remember he said last time—16 were Democrats. No, he told me in the car, 16 were registered Democrats, one was a registered Republican [inaudible] well, there may have been 23. And four were Declined to States. Now that doesn't surprise me in BLS. The point that he did not get into that I want to know, Bob, how many were Jews? Out of the 23 in the BLS, would you get me that?

Haldeman: [White House deputy assistant] Alex [Butterfield] is getting it.

Nixon: There's a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like [Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur F.] Burns and the rest. And they all—they all only talk to Jews. Now, but there it is. But there's the BLS staff. Now how the hell do you ever expect us to get anything from that staff, the raw data, let alone what the poor guys have to say [inaudible] that isn't gonna be loaded against us? You understand?

Haldeman: Is Alex working on that?

Ehrlichman: Malek.

Nixon: Oh, Malek is. Oh.

Unidentified Person: [whispering] I'll get this to you today.

We're going on a Jew hunt!

Two days later, on July 26, Haldeman sends a memo to Malek. "What's the status of your analysis of the BLS; specifically of the 21 key people?" Haldeman writes. "What is their demographic breakdown?"

Malek answers in a memo the following day. Out of 50 names on the organization chart, Malek has run down the party affiliations of 35. Twenty-five are Democrats, one is a Republican, and nine are either independents, not registered, or of unknown party affiliation. "In addition," Malek writes (someone—presumably either Haldeman or Nixon himself—has underlined this sentence), "13 out of the 35 fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed." Scribbled beneath this (I'm guessing by Haldeman) are the words, "Most of these are at the top." (Malek's method of identifying who was Jewish and who wasn't was to scrutinize surnames, rendering his estimate as unreliable as it was abhorrent.)

Six weeks pass, and it is Sept. 8, 1971. Malek reports in a memo   (previously unpublished; thanks, again, to Kenneth J. Hughes) that he has had "several meetings" with Labor Secretary Hodgson "to convince him of the need for fairly drastic moves." Six out of nine offices will be combined into an Office of Data Analysis. This will be headed by a "politically sensitive, loyal Republican economist," presumably one who does not have a mezuzah nailed to his front door. The move will strip the BLS' deputy commissioner, the unfortunately surnamed Ben Burdetsky, from authority "over the most critical areas."

In addition, "Harold Goldstein will be moved to a routine, non-sensitive post in another part of BLS. He has been told of this and will move quietly when the reorganization is announced." Goldstein, too, will be replaced by a "sensitive and loyal Republican," one who we may assume eats shellfish with a clear conscience. (Goldstein lost some key duties, had a new supervisor placed above him, and decided less than a year later to retire at 57.)

In addition, Malek reports, two other associate commissioners with Jewish-sounding names—Peter Henle and Leon Greenberg—"will be transferred when the reorganization is announced." (Henle, after a sabbatical at the Brookings Institution, was reassigned to the Library of Congress and after Jimmy Carter became president in 1977 returned to the Labor department * as a deputy assistant secretary before retiring in 1979. He died at 88 this past February. I don't know what happened to Greenberg.)

"These moves do not go as far as I would have preferred," writes Malek in the September 1971 memo, "but represent a reasonable compromise that I feel will make the BLS a more responsive and effective unit."

Nixon Jew-Counting Archive:

Feb. 6, 2006: "Malek's List, Part 7"
Nov. 7, 2005: "Malek's List, Part 6"
July 22, 2005: "Malek's List, Cont'd"
July 8, 2005: "Jews for Malek"
June 30, 2005: "Malek's Free Ride, Cont'd"
May 26, 2005: "Colin Powell, Frontman"
Nov. 8, 2001: "Fred Malek's Field of Dreams"

Correction, Sept. 27, 2007: An earlier version of this column stated erroneously that Henle returned to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is part of the Labor Department. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Sept. 28, 2007: An earlier version of this column misstated Weiss' middle initial as "J." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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