Fred Malek's anti-Semitic past makes him unfit to chair a state government panel.

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May 21 2010 7:15 PM

What's the Matter With Virginia? Part 2

Fred Malek's anti-Semitic past makes him unfit to chair a state government panel.

Fred Malek. Click image to expand.
Fred Malek

On May 7 Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Fred Malek chairman of his Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring. McDonnell, a conservative Republican who assumed office in January, had achieved unwelcome national attention a month earlier when he declared April "Confederate History Month" without mentioning that the Confederates fought to preserve slavery (because, he explained to reporters, slavery did not rate as one of the issues "most significant for Virginia"). Two months before that, McDonnell had issued an executive order banning discrimination in state government that pointedly removed Virginia's previous protections based on sexual orientation.

McDonnell ended up backing down a little after his whitewash of the Confederacy and his revocation of civil rights protections for homosexuals stirred a predictable outcry from the African American and gay communities. (See "What's The Matter With Virginia?") But Jewish groups have been slow to protest the appointment of Malek, whose most noteworthy prior experience in government reorganization dates to 1971, when Malek was a 34-year-old special assistant to President Richard Nixon. At Nixon's request, Malek produced a memo denoting the number of Jews employed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Malek then arranged the demotion of at least four people with Jewish-sounding surnames. (He didn't actually know who was Jewish and who wasn't; he guessed based on their names.) It was the last recorded act of official anti-Semitism by the United States government.

Why no outcry? "Malek's defenders," explains Frederick Kunkle in the May 21 Washington Post, "have said that he long ago apologized and atoned for his role in the Nixon-led inquisition." This view is widely held within Washington. But it happens to be wrong. Malek long ago copped to writing the Jew-counting memo, but he never admitted to—indeed, he lied with theatrical indignation about—his role in punishing the offending Semites, proof of which quietly surfaced in Slate three years ago.

Malek's fulfillment of Nixon's deranged request that he identify the "Jewish cabal" within the BLS was first reported by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1976 book, The Final Days. In September 1988, shortly after Vice President George H.W. Bush (then running for president) installed Malek as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, Woodward and Walter Pincus published a follow-up of sorts in the Post. Two months after Malek had written his July 1971 memo, Woodward and Pincus wrote, two Jewish BLS officials named Peter Henle and Harold Goldstein had been "ousted from their posts and moved to less visible positions in the Labor Department agency." The piece cited some evidence suggesting that Malek had been involved in the reassignments but offered no proof. For instance, Woodward and Pincus reported the existence of, but were unable to obtain, a follow-up to Malek's Jew-counting memo. They related that a notation in the Nixon White House files (which then resided in the National Archives) stated that the follow-up memo (dated Sept. 8, 1971) was not publicly available because disclosing it "would violate an individual's rights." It was, Woodward and Pincus explained, being withheld at the request of lawyers for Nixon, who was still alive at the time. An unnamed "knowledgeable source" told Woodward and Pincus that Nixon's lawyers had gone through the files of former Nixon aides who were now working for the Bush campaign. One hundred and thirty-four documents relating to Malek had been withdrawn from public view.

This Post story, merely by documenting Malek's Jew-count, forced Malek's resignation from the RNC. But both before and after he quit, Malek said he'd done nothing more than report to Nixon that the BLS housed 13 Jews. Asked whether he thought his Jew-count was appropriate, Malek said "No," adding, "When you are in the White House you get lots of directives that you don't agree with." Later in the story, Malek characterized Nixon's fixation on a Jewish BLS cabal as "ridiculous" and "nonsense."

Malek was more voluble about the demotions. "In no way did I take part in moving anyone out of the BLS," he told Woodward and Pincus. Malek said he had no memory of writing any follow-up memo, and "If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone's employment status I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused." Malek quit the day the Post story appeared, denouncing the "offensive and incorrect" suggestion "that I would have engaged in any attempt to jeopardize someone's job because of their religious affiliation." He said he found "that kind of action—or even the suggestion that I engaged peripherally in that kind of effort—to be morally wrong and totally out of bounds."

This wasn't just a lie. It was what Newsweek's Evan Thomas, my onetime boss, likes to call an "exuberant lie." The proof lay in the memo from Sept. 8, 1971, that the National Archives withheld. Nineteen years after the Post story appeared, Kenneth J. Hughes of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs furnished me a copy. I would encourage Gov. McDonnell to read it.

Malek's memo was addressed to Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and the subject line was "Bureau of Labor Statistics." Malek reported: "I had several meetings with [Labor] Secretary [James D.] Hodgson to convince him of the need for fairly drastic moves." The BLS, Malek wrote, "will be organized with 6 out of 9 existing offices being combined into a newly created Office of Data Analysis" to be headed by a newly created deputy commissioner. The BLS already had a deputy commissioner named … Ben Burdetsky. "[I]nstead of replacing Burdetsky as Deputy Commissioner," Malek explained, "the plan creates a second Deputy over the most critical areas. This is a compromise, but I believe it is a workable solution." I can't prove that Burdetsky was on Malek's earlier list of 13 Jewish-sounding names (only the number became public), but what Malek described was clearly a demotion for Burdetsky, whose unsuitability had apparently been a matter of prior discussion between Haldeman and Malek.

Goldstein and Henle were almost certainly on Malek's Jew list; both were Jewish, and both had displeased Nixon by supporting objective (as opposed to politicized) interpretations of unemployment data. This was the supposed act of disloyalty that first convinced Nixon that Jews in the BLS were out to get him. Goldstein, Malek reported, "will be moved to a routine, non-sensitive post in another part of BLS." Henle and Leon Greenberg, another BLS data-cruncher, "will be transferred when the reorganization is announced."

Malek concluded by promising that, by the end of September 1971, Labor Secretary Hodgson would announce the reorganization and force "the transfers of Goldstein, Henle, and Greenberg. These moves do not go as far as I would have preferred but represent a reasonable compromise [with the president's demand for a Jew purge] that I feel will make the BLS a more responsive and effective unit."

Let's review, once again, what Malek said in 1988:

In no way did I take part in moving anyone out of the BLS.

If I had even been peripherally involved or asked to alter someone's employment status I would have found it offensive and morally unacceptable, and I would have refused.

[The Post's article was] offensive and incorrect in suggesting that I would have engaged in any attempt to jeopardize someone's job because of their religious affiliation.

I find that kind of action—or even the suggestion that I engaged peripherally in that kind of effort—to be morally wrong and totally out of bounds.

Since 1988, Malek has not lifted a finger publicly to correct these lies, much less apologize for the actions they were meant to conceal. Meanwhile, his political rehabilitation has proceeded with scarcely a hitch. A year after the Post story appeared, George H.W. Bush, now safely elected president, put Malek in charge of an economic summit of industrialized nations (a post that entitles him to be addressed as "Ambassador Malek"). By 1992 the stink had dissipated enough for Bush to make Malek a co-chairman of his presidential campaign. A trusteeship at the prestigious Aspen Institute and a membership in Capitol Hill's exclusive Alfalfa Club materialized at some point, and in 2008 John McCain named Malek national finance co-chairman of his presidential campaign. (This was four years after Malek paid a $100,000 civil fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission, on top of a $150,000 fine from his private equity firm, Thayer Capital Partners, for diverting a portion of Connecticut's state pension fund to a political crony of Connecticut State Treasurer Paul J. Silvester. But I digress.)

Malek's Jew-counting past probably played some role in his investment group's failing to win Major League Baseball's approval to own the Nationals, the D.C. baseball team—Malek had previously helped supply the cash for George W. Bush to acquire the Texas Rangers—but given the Nationals' performance, that may have been a blessing in disguise. Malek has lately emerged as a leading adviser to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Now Malek is reorganizing Virginia state government. I wouldn't go so far as to say that in giving Malek this job, McDonnell is coddling an anti-Semite. I believe that Malek was probably repulsed by what he ended up doing for Nixon. But he did it, and ever since Malek has lied to avoid admitting the depth of his involvement in this grotesque episode. If that's atonement, then I'm St. Francis of Assisi.

Update, May 25: In an interview  for WTOP radio in Washington, Mark Plotkin asked McDonnell why he appointed Malek. Did the governor know about Malek's Jew-counting past when he named Malek to the commission? Here's McDonnell's answer:

No, I didn't know. Listen, Fred Malek is a very distinguished and successful business leader in Virginia. He's been president of Northwest Airlines, Mariott Hotels, he's turned those companies around, and when I'm looking for somebody to be a leader in a government reform effort to try to make Virginia government work better, I want a successful businessperson.

The second thing I would say, I did not know about this background but it was 40 years ago, he made a mistake, he's apologized and atoned for it. But here's something even more important, Mark. Is that the leading Jewish organizations and leaders in America that know him have issued statements of support. The American-Israel Friendship League has issued a statement. [Malek sits on its board.] The Anti-Defamation League has issued a statement. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who knows him well, says that he's an honorable man that she respects and trusts. Congressman Eric Cantor issued a statement. These are leading Jewish leaders. And so, they understand that that was 40 years ago, he made a mistake, and he has since then done any number of things not only to make up for that mistake but more importantly be a really successful, productive leader in Virginia. I respect that record.

As for the SEC fines totalling $250,000, McDonnell said he didn't know about those before he named Malek either. But, McDonnell said, "people that are in business 20, 30, 40, 50 years often have regulatory violations."

Update, May 26: In January 2010 the Nixon Library (which in recent years has become more scholarly and objective) posted on its Web site various documents about the Jew-counting episode and its aftermath. Somewhat mystifyingly, the Sept. 8 memo that the University of Virginia's Miller Center furnished me ("Haldeman, Alpha Name Files, Fred Malek, September 1971, Box #85" folder, Haldeman Contested Folder 8) is not included. There are plenty of other documents included in the release, however, that show beyond any doubt that Malek was actively involved in the process of reassigning the offending BLS Semites, his strenuous denials to the contrary.

The Jan. 2010 documents include a July 26 memo from Malek to a White House aide named Dan Kingsley to which Malek has attached a list denoting the names, ages, and length of government service for 13 employees of the BLS. These are almost certainly the 13 people Malek identified to Haldeman as Jews in a memo he wrote the following day. These 13 people have not previously been named. They include Burdetsky, Goldstein, Henle, and Greenberg, the four BLS employees Malek identified in the Sept. 8 memo as having been demoted. The others are: Thomas W. Gavett, Joseph Goldberg, Donald Keuch, Henry Lowenstern, Jerome Mark, Herbert Morton, Joel Popkin, William Shelton, and Kenneth Van Auken. Malek told Woodward and Pincus that he had no idea whether these people were actually Jewish; he simply identified them as having Jewish-sounding names. (I have no idea why Malek would have thought "Gavett," "Shelton," and "Van Auken" sounded Semitic. Weak Jewdar, I guess; or maybe mine is weak.)

The Nixon Library documents also include a July 30 memo to Haldeman from Kingsley ("through" Malek, who signed it) explaining that although the earlier (July 27) Jew-counting memo said the BLS housed 13 Jews, they were now revising their estimate to 19. The identities of the additional six suspected Jews are not revealed. In this memo Kingsley rather ham-handedly lists the 19 under the heading "NUMBER OF ETHNICS," then further gives the game away in a scribbled cover note to Malek: "Obviously, the interpretation of 'ethnic' should be narrow in this case!" Well, duh. (Malek's own earlier memo to Haldeman more delicately referred to the Jews as fitting "the other demographic criterion that was discussed." Malek confirmed to Woodward and Pincus that he meant Jews.)

Kingsley, incidentally, published in 1984 a book titled How To Fire An Employee.

Nixon Jew-Counting Archive:
Sept. 26, 2007: "Nixon's Jew Count: The Whole Story!"
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"

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