By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007
Peter Henle, 88, a retired economist with the U.S. Department of Labor who became a target of the Nixon White House in 1971, died Feb. 20 of cancer at Collington Episcopal Life Care Community in Mitchellville.
Mr. Henle, who dedicated his career to exploring economic issues from the perspective of the average worker, found himself in the news when President Richard Nixon charged that a "Jewish cabal" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics was out to get him. The "cabal" was composed of two people: Mr. Henle and Harold Goldstein, director of current employment analysis at the bureau.
Nixon believed that the two bureau officials were distorting unemployment data to cast his administration in an unfavorable light. He ordered Frederic V. Malek, his White House personnel chief, to compile figures on the number of Jews among top labor officials. Two months after Malek compiled the data, Mr. Henle and Goldstein were assigned to less visible positions within the Labor Department.
Malek told The Washington Post in 1988, when he had been selected as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, that he had compiled the data Nixon requested, but he disputed the assertion that the two employees were reassigned as a result of his memorandum.
Mr. Henle's son, Michael Henle, said his father didn't talk much about the episode. "He was certainly irritated and angry with Nixon," Henle said, "but he and Harold Goldstein both downplayed any notion of Malek's anti-Semitism."
Michael Henle said that his father's civil service status prevented him from being fired but that he was shunted aside and given nothing to do. He left the bureau and spent a year at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Henle was born in New York City and grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. He graduated with honors from Swarthmore College in 1940 and was drafted into the Army the next year. From 1942 to 1945, he was a staff officer for the 33rd Statistical Control Unit of the Army Air Force, first in Colorado Springs and then in Guam. He was a major at the time of his 1945 discharge.
In 1946, while working on a graduate degree in statistics, he joined the research staff of the American Federation of Labor. He received a master's degree from American University in 1947 and stayed with the AFL until 1961, eventually becoming assistant director of research.
Mr. Henle joined the Department of Labor as chief economist for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the year he spent at Brookings, he wrote "Exploring the Distribution of Earned Income" for the December 1972 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The article examined persistent patterns in U.S. income inequality.
He moved to the Library of Congress as a senior specialist at the Congressional Research Service before returning to Labor in 1977 as a deputy assistant secretary. After his retirement from Labor in 1979, he pursued a second career as a labor arbitrator. He retired again in 1992.
A lifelong researcher and writer, he published more than 70 articles, book chapters and opinion pieces. In his last article, "Where Have You Gone, Andrew Carnegie?" (Washington Monthly, May 1996), he and co-author Mark Drajem urged dot-com millionaires to emulate Carnegie's generosity.
Mr. Henle lived in Arlington County from 1949 until 2003 and was active in civic affairs, including service as chairman of the Arlington County Manpower Planning Council and as trustee of the Arlington County Employees Retirement System. He moved to the Collington retirement community in 2003.
His wife, Theda Ostrander Henle, died in 2005.
Survivors include three sons, Michael Henle of Oberlin, Ohio, James Henle of Northampton, Mass., and Paul Henle of Concord, N.H.; four grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.