Fred Malek makes his most detailed public statement about counting Jews for Richard Nixon, but he omits the most shameful part.
On April 8 the Horatio Alger Association will bestow its annual award on Fred Malek and 11 other notable Americans. The award recognizes "remarkable achievements accomplished through honesty, hard work, self-reliance and perseverance over adversity." Perhaps at the ceremony, time can be found to unspool an "oral history snippet" included in the Nixon Library and Museum's just-opened Watergate gallery. In the video, Fred Malek, a Republican power broker and cable-chat eminence, gives what I believe is his fullest public account to date of his participation in the last known act of official anti-Semitism conducted by the United States government. (The snippet is also available online.) Malek's video testimony certainly demonstrates hard work, self-reliance, and perseverance, but honesty is not the first word that comes to mind when I consider either the tale itself or the way Malek chooses to tell it.
The Nixon Library's new Watergate gallery is winning rave reviews for telling it straight about the Watergate crisis. (Its previous Watergate exhibit, "Watergate: The Final Campaign," was a whitewash.) I congratulate the library director (and sometime Slate contributor) Tim Naftali for including Nixon's repulsive attempt to render the upper ranks of the Bureu of Labor Statistics Judenfrei. It was one of Watergate's most-Gothic but least-remembered subpolots. But Malek omits from his telling the detail most damning to himself—a detail he denied when last confronted with it way back in 1988. "That kind of action—or even the suggestion that I engaged peripherally in that kind of effort—[is] morally wrong and totally out of bounds," Malek told Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus of the Washington Post. Malek was right that the deed Woodward and Pincus were asking him about was reprehensible but wrong to question Woodward and Pincus' ethics in raising it with him, because we now know that Malek committed it. For some inexplicable reason, Naftali, who conducted the oral-history interview, failed to ask Malek about the deed.
What was this ghastly deed? Before we get to that, let's review the basic plot line. When Malek was White House personnel chief, President Richard Nixon told him (via chief of staff H.R. Haldeman) to compile a list of all the Jews who worked at the BLS. (Yes, the 37th president of the United States was certifiable. He was also—despite his strong support for the state of Israel—an anti-Semite in an era when anti-Semitism was fast disappearing. For audio evidence, see "Tape snippet: July 3, 1971, on Jews in the Federal Government.") Malek obliged; he counted up all the Jews in the BLS and sent Nixon the number. That's the part of the story Malek cops to. Here is how Malek tells it in the Nixon Library's oral history:
It was a weird request. But the president became convinced that there was a small group of Jewish Democrats in the Bureau of Labor statistics who were cooking the books to make the labor statistics look bad so it hurt him politically. I don't know anyone else that believed that was so. But he believed it was so. So he asked me to, as head of personnel, to find out how many of those people were Democrats and how many were Jewish. Well, I didn't even know how to find that out. I knew how to find out how many were Democrats because they, you register by party in most places so the Republican National Committee gave us, I don't even remember how many, maybe 20 people. [That's close: It was 25.] And we reported back that a dozen or more, whatever it was, were Democrats.
And he kept asking about well, how many of them were Jewish, and we didn't know how to respond. Plus I felt it was a little strange. Finally the fifth request came down and Haldeman said, look, just do something, Just give him something so we can check this off and move on. So I asked some guy on my staff to say, look why don't you just look at the names and make an assessment of how many look like they're Jewish and how many don't. So I sent him a one-liner back saying of the top however many people, so many [13, though a subsequent memo said 19] appear to be Jewish, and that was it.
Except that, I was talking to, in conversations with the undersecretary of labor, just to determine if there really was a problem there. The undersecretary was Laurence Silberman, who really happened to be Jewish. So Larry and I were talking about it and Larry said, look, your problem is you've got a weak commissioner, and we really should do something about that. And if you get the right commissioner placed we can have a better run agency. The president's right in one respect. They're not running the thing right. These numbers are all over the place. It's not being controlled. Lets get a better commissioner.
So we fired the commissioner [of labor statistics]. His name was Geoffrey Moore. He happened to be a WASP. And we went out and recruited a replacement. The replacement was named Julius Shiskin. He happened to be Jewish. So the end result of this whole presidential directive to find out how many, which haunts everybody to this day by the way, the whole result was to replace Geoffrey Moore with the a very talented commissioner named Julius Shiskin who brought the bureau under control and did a good job.
Malek might have added that Nixon had at the start of all this specifically stated he wanted Shiskin removed as director of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Shiskin was removed from that post, but instead of being fired or demoted he got promoted. As Malek tells it, then, this is a risible tale about how the old man's loopy rants against Jews at BLS actually led to a net increase in the number of Jews there. We sure pulled the wool over his eyes!
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Fred Malek by Robert A. Reeder/AFP/Getty Images.