Madeleine Albright gives Fred Malek an award at a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak constitution at the Folger Shakespeare Library in 2018. (Lillis Werder)
Columnist

In the polarized, bitterly divided Washington of today, the lions of the right and left shouldn’t do dinners together, right?

But Fred Malek and Madeleine Albright did. And they did those fond old-friend, double-handed handshakes when they saw each other. The Republican rainmaker and the country’s first female secretary of state threw their heads back in laughter at their inside jokes, they were gracious and kind to each other. And I was in awe.

Malek, who died this week at 82, once counted Jews for President Nixon.

Albright, 81, learned late in life that her family wasn’t Catholic; they were Jews who fled the Holocaust.

And yet, these two powerful political opposites were friends. This is a story about forgiveness, redemption and bipartisanship. How did they make that work?

I’ve been wanting to ask Albright this question for years, because I often spent time in the same room as these two thanks to something that all three of us have in common — our Czech heritage.

Malek was the son of a Czech American beer-truck driver from an immigrant neighborhood of the Chicago suburbs. He went to West Point, saw combat in Vietnam as an Army Ranger, served Republican presidents and became a corporate executive at Marriott and Northwest Airlines. He co-owned a baseball team with George W. Bush. He was one of the driving forces in bringing baseball back to Washington. He was fabulously wealthy and wildly influential in Republican politics. A true champion of the right.

Albright, author of a recent bestseller warning the world of the signs of fascism, became one of the most powerful women in the world when President Bill Clinton appointed her secretary of state in 1997. She has been a diplomat, political force, beloved college professor, an adviser to top Democrats and a hero to working moms across the nation. A true luminary of the left.

I first met Malek because my Czech name caught his eye, and he began sending me little notes nearly a decade ago whenever he spotted a column of mine he liked. I imagine there weren’t too many he liked, but when he did, he was generous and kind. And he began inviting me to events with his American Friends of the Czech Republic foundation.

That’s what drew Albright to him, too.

His work with the Czechs did not make his obituaries. But Malek was the driving force behind statues and memorials in both countries honoring the best of each other’s leaders.

The bust of Vaclav Havel in the U.S. Capitol was Malek’s doing, as is the statue of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who wrote the country’s constitution right here in Washington and was a progressive feminist who took his wife’s name and pointedly included women in the Czechoslovak constitution.

Malek was behind the statue of Woodrow Wilson in Prague. And when an explosion in the small town of West, Tex., destroyed a Czech immigrant community center in 2013, Malek rebuilt it.

“That’s what Fred and I had in common, our heritage,” Albright told me this week.

They met at the Aspen Institute shortly after Albright left the Clinton administration, where they found intellectual rigor the foundation for their friendship.

“Informative and stimulating to enjoy an Aspen Institute evening with Madeleine Albright,” Malek tweeted just nine months ago. “While disagreeing with Madeleine on politics and many policies, am pleased to have this fellow Czech American as a friend.”

Was 50 years enough time to forgive what he’d done, which people still talked about in Washington this week when he died?

Malek began working for President Richard Nixon before I was even born. And it was in 1971 that Nixon — convinced that low workforce numbers coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics were part of a “Jewish cabal” that was out to get him — ordered Malek to compile a list of Jewish staff members at the bureau so that he could punish them.

Malek said he refused the order four times before finally caving to Nixon, making wild guesses at names that sounded Jewish. It led to the demotion of two people. And he spent the rest of his life apologizing for it.

When his list became public, Malek resigned from his position as the Republican Party’s deputy chairman and worked with various leaders in the Jewish community to express his remorse. The Anti-Defamation League even gave him an award.

Albright found out when she was 59 that her Catholic family was actually Jewish, that they fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis and that members of her family had died in the Holocaust.

So her own history was complicated, too. How, I asked Albright, did she reckon with Malek’s history?

“I decided that was something I didn’t want to hold [against him],” she told me. “I think we’ve all said and done things we wish we hadn’t. I didn’t know him at the time, and I judged who he was by what I knew of him when we were together.”

Malek was known in Washington circles for a very exclusive event he held right before each year’s Alfalfa Club Dinner, and he always invited Albright.

“I think we both respected each other, and we would kid about the fact that we had nothing in common,” she said.

She said he apologized for the counting incident for years. She saw him try to convince folks he wasn’t anti-Semitic his whole life and at one point, after getting to know him, Albright accepted that.

Their friendship is a lesson for a divided nation.

“I do believe in bipartisanship,” Albright said. “I also think there’s no solution to problems if we don’t work together.”

“In terms of the Fred relationship,” she said, “it shows you can disagree, then you can find a lot of things where you agree, and it can come out where it’s good for everybody.”

Twitter: @petulad