Lucky for Republican fund raiser Fred Malek — and his bid to buy the Washington Nationals baseball team — Peter Henle and Harold Goldstein are more forgiving than Malek’s old boss, Richard Nixon.
Henle and Goldstein were working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1971, when Nixon became convinced that a “Jewish cabal” was running it and ordered Malek to draw up a list of Jews in the department. Malek, then the White House personnel chief, eventually produced a list of 13 bureau employees, including Henle and Goldstein, after which the two civil servants were demoted.
The question of who should get to own the Nationals has become a political hot-button in recent weeks, with at least two GOP lawmakers warning Major League Baseball against selling the team to an ownership group that includes anti-Bush billionaire financier George Soros. In response, a handful of commentators have suggested that if Soros is no good, then Malek — who, along with President Bush, was part of an investment group that owned the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s — also should be blocked from purchasing the Nationals.
But Henle and Goldstein — the only Jews on the list who were reassigned — are coming to Malek’s defense.
In their first public comments about the issue since it was disclosed in a 1988 Washington Post report, Henle and Goldstein told the Forward that they do not think Malek should be faulted for drawing up the list and do not think the list had much to do with their demotions.
“I don’t hold it particularly against Malek,” Goldstein said, adding, “He was in there working for a rotten boss, and the rotten boss asked him to do a nasty job, and he did. It wasn’t illegal. It certainly wasn’t a friendly thing to do… [but] I don’t have a feud with Malek for the rest of my life.”
Both Henle, 86, and Goldstein, 90, mentioned getting “a laugh” from hearing that Malek had developed the list of Jews, as neither strongly identifies as a Jew. At the time, their demotions were seen as a direct result of their defying Nixon’s attempts to meddle with the bureau’s assessments.
Henle’s youngest son, Paul, told the Forward, “My father, he’s almost as un-Jewish as you can get; I tell people that my grandfather…used to brag that his father was the first Jew in Kentucky to eat pork.” Given as much, Paul Henle said, “It’s just astonishing how paranoid Nixon was, just totally off the chart, that he thought there was this Jewish cabal.”
The junior Henle and others told the Forward that Henle himself had been a big fan of the Washington Senators. He would frequently attend games with family and friends before the baseball team left the city in 1971. And, they added, he has taken a keen interest in the return of big-league baseball to the nation’s capital.
Since Malek’s role was first exposed by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus, the former Nixon aide has expressed remorse over the incident repeatedly, and said that he tried to convince the president that no Jewish cabal existed. But some of Malek’s critics remain steadfast in their belief that his past misdeeds should not be put aside.
In particular, ever since 2001, when Malek first emerged as a bidder for the Washington baseball team, Slate political correspondent Timothy Noah has consistently argued against the idea and decried Malek’s continuing respectability in Washington circles.
“I do think that people who carry out morally wrong orders for expedient reasons are arguably more culpable than people” who don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong, Noah told the Forward, adding that Malek should not be awarded a baseball team that will benefit from a package including taxpayer financing for a new stadium.
Noah described the 1971 incident as “kind of a last hurrah for official antisemitism,” and said that while it “spoke to a particularly ugly cast of mind in Nixon… Malek’s agreeing to take out the order was reprehensible.”
In sharp contrast to Noah and other critics, two prominent Jewish communal leaders — Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — have defended Malek’s right to buy the Washington baseball team, arguing that he was simply following orders when he put together the list and that it was a onetime incident, according to Washington Jewish Week. Foxman, who defended Malek when the story first broke in 1988, also has criticized the Republican effort to block Soros and his partners from buying the Nationals.
Two Democratic lawmakers who spoke out against Malek in 1988 — Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Senator Charles Schumer of New York — have been silent on the issue this time around.
Noah was critical of efforts by Jewish leaders on behalf of Malek. “I think they’ve let Jews down,” Noah said, “and I think they’ve let the public at large down.”
Malek already has paid a price for preparing the infamous list. When the Post broke the story in 1988, he had recently run that year’s Republican National Convention and been appointed by then-Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. Soon after the story hit the news, Malek resigned his party post. By 1992, however, Malek appeared to have overcome the scandal: With virtually no protest, he was tapped to serve as the manager of the senior Bush’s re-election campaign.
According to notes uncovered by Woodward and Pincus, the story began in 1971 when Malek, an aide to Nixon, was assigned the task of uncovering a “Jew cabal” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The assignment came after Goldstein, in a March 1971 press conference, disagreed with Nixon’s position that a drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2% to 6% was only “marginally significant.”
On July 27 of that year, according to the notes, Nixon ordered Malek to assess “21 key people” in the bureau according to various criteria, including political affiliation and “demographic background,” by which the administration meant Jewish status. Malek reported back with a list of 13 individuals who he guessed were Jews, based on their last names.
Within months, both Henle and Goldstein were reassigned.
Henle, then the bureau’s chief economist, already had put in a request for an eventual six-month leave of absence to conduct research at The Brookings Institution. He was quickly granted a 12-month leave of absence that began immediately, and was subsequently reassigned to a position in the Library of Congress on his return. Goldstein, then the director of current employment analysis, had his duties regarding employment statistics shifted to another employee, and a separate individual was placed above him in the hierarchy. Goldstein retired soon after, in mid-1972.
In interviews with the Forward, Henle and Goldstein insisted that their frustration over the reassignments had always been directed primarily at Nixon himself, and said they felt that their being Jewish played a minimal role in the incident.
“The real story is…the conflict between professionals who want to do their job and an administration with an agenda,” Goldstein said.
Both Goldstein and Henle were involved in the unemployment statistic flap, though only Goldstein’s involvement was known until now. In a previously unreported memo to superiors, Henle defended Goldstein’s initial rebuttal of Nixon. The two view their reassignments as the direct results of those actions, and news reports at the time maintained a similar viewpoint.
A Time magazine item called Goldstein “the peskiest poker of Administration balloons” and described Henle as someone “who often disagreed with White House assumptions.”
The reassignments were met with much protest by some leading Washington figures. When, as part of Nixon’s retaliation, the former president canceled the bureau’s monthly press conference, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, a rabble-rousing Democrat, responded by holding monthly hearings on the employment statistics.
Janet Norwood, who worked for the bureau at the time and re-established the press conferences after she became commissioner of the bureau in the 1990s, told the Forward, “I think that everyone in the bureau supported Hal and Peter, because… there was a strong feeling in the bureau of objectivity and professionalism, and I think Hal and Peter stood for that.”
Goldstein recently told the Forward that he was not particularly upset at what happened to him. “I guess I retired with some anger, but I knew that my boss, the commissioner, had been given his orders,” he said, adding, “It was not a disastrous thing that happened to me.”
Henle said he no longer remembers the incident very well. His son, Paul, said that Henle was not particularly upset. “I think he enjoyed being at Brookings, and he enjoyed working at the Library of Congress,” the younger Henle recalled.
Paul Henle said that his mother, Theda, a major Democratic activist in Virginia who passed away in April, was angrier about the reassignment than his father was. “He didn’t talk much about what he did,” the junior Henle said, adding, “She’d be the one who’d get more mad at the dinner table than he would… and I think that’s kind of the way they worked it out, that she would get mad for him.”
For his part, Slate’s Noah told the Forward that he was a little surprised that the incident did not anger Henle and Goldstein.
“I’m interested to learn that they think it’s possible there were other reasons for their reassignment,” Noah said, adding, “I think they show a great generosity of spirit to not be angry.… I would be angry, and I’m only half-Jewish.”