WASHINGTON, D.C.—From the sagging row houses of Paterson, New Jersey, to the cocaine fields of Colombia, from the razor wire of Rikers Island to the streets of New York City, Bernard Kerik has dedicated his life to a single goal: to fight the injustice he sees around him.”Thus trumpets the cover copy for The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, by George Bush’s secretary-of-homeland-security-to-be. As New York City police commissioner at the time of the 9-11 attack—not long before the book was published—Kerik was hailed as a hero. In the memoir, Kerik portrays himself as a giant of a man—a figure haunted by the image of his poor mother, and bent on righting one injustice after another. He compares himself to former president Teddy Roosevelt, who also served as New York police commissioner.
New York pols are lapping up Kerik’s story. “If ever a state deserves to have a citizen appointed to [head the Department of] Homeland Security, it is New York,” Senator Charles Schumer told CNN last week. “Bernard Kerik knows firsthand the challenges and needs of New York and other high-threat areas,” Senator Hillary Clinton said in a statement. “As a member of the president’s Cabinet, he can make that case every single day.”
Before they say anything more, Schumer, Clinton, and yes, Teddy Kennedy ought to go read Jimmy Breslin in the March 7, 2004, Newsday. “At the World Trade Center, Kerik was in the back of his car dictating the last part of a book that was going to appear under his name. It had him writhing with delicious excitement. It was about his mother being a prostitute. ‘That’s what’s going to make me all the money,’ he told a friend of mine.”
A good deal of Kerik’s hero image is promoted, if not created, by Rupert Murdoch’s New York publishing genius Judith Regan. The Vassar graduate and onetime National Enquirer reporter is a Kerik workout partner. Her authors include Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Nader and Howard Stern. Some people get confused about Regan’s politics. Not a problem, Regan says. “We publish. You decide,” she explained in an ad.
For his appointment as secretary of homeland defense, Kerik may well owe thanks to his business partner and friend Rudy Giuliani. But Kerik also owes Regan big-time. And he has done his best to pay her back. After she donated $493,843 to the New York Police and Fire Widows and Orphans Fund in 2001, he awarded her an honorary commissionership, just to show his appreciation. When Regan lost her cell phone at a Fox TV show, Kerik dispatched city homicide detectives to find it.
Not everyone thinks Kerik is God. At the 9-11 Commission hearings last spring, one of the commissioners, John F. Lehman, secretary of the navy under Ronald Reagan, attacked him head-on, accusing both Kerik and Fire Commissioner Thomas Van Essen of hampering rescue efforts with their departments’ bizarre command and control functions. Lehman called the situation “not worthy of the Boy Scouts.” The commission’s final report turned this acid comment into one of its most memorable thumb suckers: “Whether the lack of coordination between the FDNY and the NYPD had a catastrophic effect is a subject of controversy.”
Kerik was always at the edges of some screwy, not quite crooked but decidedly creepy deal, like using pictures of ground zero taken by police detectives in his book or sending other detectives to Ohio to ferret out the truth about his mother, also for the book—he eventually paid a fine for this conflict of interest—and then giving one of the detectives a top police department medal. His poor mother, they’d discovered, was a prostitute found beaten to death in an Ohio flophouse. New Yorkers are plenty sick of hearing the “my mother was a whore” story every time Kerik opens his mouth, or how he “fathered” an illegitimate daughter while in the army in Korea. Father and daughter were publicly reunited at his retirement dinner in 2002, and she has been warmly welcomed into the Kerik family.
While Kerik was the city’s corrections commissioner, some $1 million in tobacco rebates for cigarettes bought with public funds and then sold at inflated prices to inmates were discovered to have been funneled into a foundation Kerik headed. A former aide is now serving a one-year prison sentence for mail fraud, for diverting some of this money to pay for inmates’ phone sex.
After 9-11, Kerik was widely celebrated. A corrections facility in downtown Manhattan was named after him, and the Police Foundation paid for miniature busts of Kerik, which he gave to friends. In 2003, he announced he was going on a special six-month assignment to train the new Iraqi police force. He quit after three months, citing the need for a vacation. Now insurgents are slaughtering the new Iraqi police by the dozen.
Kerik joined Giuliani Partners, the former mayor’s consulting firm. Two years ago, Kerik became a director of Taser International, manufacturer of the hot new stun guns whose safety has been questioned. Recently he sold his more than 100,000 shares of company stock for $5.7 million.
Newsday has done the best coverage of Kerik. “He couldn’t run the Rikers commissary without getting greedy and making a mess, in a jam,” Ellis Henican reported one corrections insider as saying. “Now he’s gonna be in charge of the Department of Homeland Security? Let’s just hope the terrorists don’t decide to come back.”
Added Henican, “He’s a personal and professional time bomb the Bushies will learn to regret.”
Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti