Reporters fall for Fred Malek's modified limited hangout.

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June 5 2010 4:08 PM

Malek's Fake Penitence

Reporters fall for Fred Malek's modified limited hangout.

In her essay, "The Art of the Fake Apology," my late wife Marjorie Williams explained how a politician's pseudo-apology typically fell short of the real thing. It was a "revelation of personal weakness that is carefully calibrated to address a political vulnerability without making any concession that could attract further harm." During the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, this was known, in the Nixon White House, as a "modified limited hangout." Fred Malek's June 4 comment about his 1971 attempt to render Nixon's Bureau of Labor Statistics Judenfreiis an excellent example.

"Advisor to Virginia Governor Apologizes For Compiling List of Jews For Nixon," reports Anita Kumar in the June 5 Washington Post. A better headline would be: "Adviser to Virginia Governor Ducks Proof That He Demoted Jews Based on Religion." A subhead might be: "Reporters pretend or don't know they're being conned."

Here is what Malek said (click here for the video):

I've apologized so many times ... over the past 40 years for that unfortunate decision of mine to follow the direction of the president. Over my five decades of career, I've made mistakes. That was the biggest one I have ever made in my life. I think I've apologized and atoned for it. I've learned from it, and it's time to move on.

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The problem with this apology is that it doesn't explain what the president's direction was. News reports indicate Malek was speaking only about his role compiling, at Nixon's request, a list of 13 Jews who worked in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Later the figure was revised upward to 19. Malek's method was to guess based on surnames.) Jew-counting is, God knows, pretty awful in itself. Malek has indeed apologized for this many times since 1988, when the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus found his 1971 Jew-counting memo in the Nixon archives, compelling Malek to resign the No. 2 post at the Republican National Committee.

But Malek didn't just compile a list of Jews; he demoted at least four of those Jews. In 1988 the Post uncovered proof of two of these demotions and found circumstantial evidence that Malek was involved. But the Post couldn't prove it, and so Malek denied it. "In no way did I take part in moving anyone out of the BLS," Malek told Woodward and Pincus. "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 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." In other words: Not only did I not do it; shame on you for speculating that I did!

These were all lies, and Malek has never corrected them or been held to account for them. A memo surfaced three years ago proving that Malek was intimately involved in the demotions, and that Malek demoted four Jewish-surnamed BLS officials, not two. Additional material surfaced this past January providing additional details, including the actual list of 13 Jews. (The identies of the additional six remain a mystery.)

Denoting Jews in the BLS is bad; demoting Jews for being Jewish is worse. Malek admits to the denotion but has falsely denied any role in the demotions, and apparently reporters are in no mood to confront him about this. That isn't atonement. It's deceit and evasion.

"We all know, in our own lives, how hard it is to make a real apology," Marjorie wrote. "The real thing, in the moment before we cough it up, is a dire hair ball of stubbornness and pride. A real apology is useless, in the sense that it isn't offered for the giver's gain." In Malek's case, a real apology would probably compel him to resign from the Virginia governnment-reorganization committee that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell ill-advisedly appointed him to. More important, it would shatter the humble penitent's image that Malek has carefully cultivated. Malek's garment-rending pantomime has, over the years, won him a government appointment bestowing ambassadorial rank; a prominent role in the Republican Party; the finance chairmanship of John McCain's presidential campaign; a seat on the Aspen Institute's board; a gig as guest host on CNBC; and an honored spot on the blogroll of the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. ("The gentleman is one of the biggest donors in the Republican Party," Ambinder wrote in 2008, "a behind-the-scenes-poo-bah, a major venture capitalist, a Vietnam veteran, and an opinion leader whose thoughts are worth reading." Yuck.)

Malek won't give up his counterfeit respectability without a fight, and at the moment it looks like he won't have to.

Nixon Jew-Counting Archive:

May 21, 2010: "What's The Matter With Virginia? Part 2"
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"

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

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