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]
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."
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):
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Richard Nixon on Slate's home page by Antonio Suarez/Agence France Presse.