There was one president who tried to manipulate BLS

October 5, 2012

Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch is getting a lot of attention for an unfounded accusation that the Obama administration somehow cooked the positive jobs numbers issued Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

As it happens, there is a historical example of improper political pressure on the BLS by a U.S. president: Republican Richard M. Nixon.

As first recounted by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their 1976 book "Final Days," the frequently paranoid president — who had a history of anti-Semitic outbursts — became obsessed with the idea that a "Jewish cabal" at BLS was undermining him by issuing negative labor numbers. Nixon ordered his subordinates to tally up the number of Democrats and Jews in the agency.

"There's a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this," Nixon fumed in July 1971 to his chief of staff, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, according to White House tapes. "...And they all — they all only talk to Jews. Now, but there it is. But there's the BLS staff. Now how the hell do you ever expect us to get anything from that staff, the raw data, let alone what the poor guys have to say [inaudible] that isn't gonna be loaded against us? You understand?"

According to journalistic accounts and documents, the task fell to Nixon aide Fred Malek, who first counted high-ranking Democrats at BLS using voter registration lists and then identified employees with "Jewish-sounding" names. He reported the resulting statistics to Nixon in a 1971 letter that became known as the "Jew-counting" memo, identifying 25 Democrats and 13 employees who "fit the other demographic criterion that was discussed." 

There is continued disagreement on how many targeted employees were demoted and Malek's precise role in the affair. In 1988, Woodward and Post reporter Walter Pincus reported that two Jewish officials had been removed from their posts and shuffled off to less-important jobs at Labor during the episode. Malek — who quit his new post at the Republican National Committee on the day The Post's story appeared — expressed regret for conducting a tally of Jews but denied a role in any demotions.

In 2007, Timothy Noah of Slate publicized a previously unreleased 1971 memo from Malek suggesting he was much more closely involved in a BLS purge then he had claimed, outlining a reorganization that resulted in the demotions of at least four high-ranking Jewish employees.The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has also posted some, but not all, documents related to the affair on its Web site

Nixon's machinations at BLS caused an uproar at the time -- though the anti-Jewish motive was still unknown -- and led to added security measures ensuring that statistical analysis was clearly walled off from politics, according to a BLS history published in 1985. Current security policies include heavy data encryption, daily confidentiality agreements and an eight-day security lockdown for economists in advance of each monthly report. 

Malek has remained a prominent adviser to Republicans from George H.W. Bush to Sarah Palin, and is co-founder with former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) of the American Action Network conservative group. He is now a top fundraiser for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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