Moments after the first presidential debate ended on September 30 at the University of Miami, the press charged into the none-too-subtly named “Spin Alley.” Dozens of Bush and Kerry surrogates were inside, trailed by aides carrying signs bearing their names (“Terry McAuliffe,” “Karen Hughes”). Most were thronged by reporters. One sign read “Bernie Kerik.” He stood under it, virtually alone.
A little more than two months after he was ignored at the debate press center, Kerik was nominated to lead the country’s defense against terrorism. The subsequent collapse of his candidacy exploded years of mythmaking led by a New York City press corps that—like the reporters at the debate—showed signs of knowing better.
The Rise: After nine years as a cop, a stint as Rudy Giuliani’s 1993 campaign bodyguard, and a posting to the corrections department, Kerik’s entrée to the city media scene came in early 1995, when jails boss Anthony Schembri quit and Kerik was elevated to first deputy under a new commissioner.
Kerik soon became the public face of reforms at the city’s lockups, discussing his anti-gang efforts on Nightline in April 1997. Two years later, after moving up to jails commissioner, Kerik’s media image blossomed. An incredibly flattering spring 1999 City Journal piece credited the “vivid, take-charge” Kerik with reducing violence at the jails. The Post cheered Kerik for “working miracles” at Rikers, and The Baltimore Sun took notice of his efforts there. The biggest coup came in November 1999, when The New York Times‘ Christopher Drew, who a year earlier had written about inmate abuse at Rikers, detailed Kerik’s anti-violence policies. Corrections officials liked the piece so much they posted it in the jails.
The commissioner nurtured this affectionate coverage. Kerik compared his jail policies to Giuliani’s anti-crime initiatives elsewhere in the city, which had received national attention. He even granted a reporter from the Voice—a paper not beloved by the Giuliani administration—several days of access to corrections facilities for a piece that was originally supposed to run in Harper’s. The success story Kerik sold was true, but incomplete: While slashings and stabbings did fall during Kerik’s tenure, the numbers for other types of violence held relatively steady. Yet even after he’d moved on to One Police Plaza, Kerik’s jail reforms were still getting good press: In January 2001, 60 Minutes II saluted him as the man who had run Rikers “with an iron fist.”
Over at police HQ, a few reporters called Kerik’s rise to police commissioner for what it was: Giuliani elevating a loyalist. But as “top cop,” Bernie usually received favorable headlines. His timing helped: The Giuliani administration’s value as a press target had faded after the mayor’s aborted Senate run, and Kerik’s predecessor had had an absolutely poisonous relationship with the media.
“You’ve got to understand that he followed [Howard] Safir, who was probably the most unpleasant man I ever met,” recalls veteran Newsday cops reporter Leonard Levitt. Levitt says Kerik replaced Safir’s abrasive style with a pleasantness that was at once calculating and natural. Kerik also boosted police morale, took steps to repair ties with the city’s minorities, and presided over a continued decrease in crime.
“He conducted himself on the surface, on the outside, with great dignity,” Levitt says. “The problem is that none of us realized what was going on underneath that.” Some of it was obvious, says Levitt: Bernie had made a habit of surrounding himself with cronies, rewarding cops who supported him with citations, and generally “bending the rules.” Levitt, who wrote several columns critical of Kerik during that time, adds, “The signs were all there.”
Then the bad guys crashed the planes into the buildings. There was Kerik at Giuliani’s side, speaking eloquently at funerals, touring ruins with the prez. Sure, Giuliani’s 9-11 Commission testimony had almost nothing to say about what Kerik actually did on the big day, and yeah, in hindsight the 2002 McKinsey report found that the NYPD lacked strong leadership during the crisis. Nonetheless, Kerik was hailed as a “hero,” a “pillar of strength,” if only for being a reassuring face amid chaos.
“Rudy and his people benefited tremendously from this September 11 halo, and I think they deserved it,” says Daily News reporter Russ Buettner, who broke many of the recent stories about Kerik. Bernie crystallized his heroic image when his life story, The Lost Son: A Life in Pursuit of Justice, appeared soon after the attacks. “It created a persona that didn’t exist before,” says Buettner of the book. Levitt says Kerik’s publisher (and apparently his ex-lover) Judith Regan is “the one who made him a national figure.”
The resulting glow guided Kerik over some rough spots as his term ended, like a brief spike in crime and a scuffle between cops and firefighters at ground zero. Kerik himself took heat for sending cops to find Regan’s cell phone, dispatching city detectives to research Lost Son, using NYPD photos of the WTC ruins for the book, and taking time off to promote it. But nothing seemed to tarnish Kerik’s image as hero. The media, Newsday columnist Ellis Henican tells the Voice, “basically bought into the myth of Bernie.”
That legend followed Kerik to Giuliani Partners LLC, through his mission to train cops in Iraq, onto the Dubya campaign bandwagon, and right to the door of the Cabinet. After Bush nominated him, the Times‘ front page dubbed Kerik “street-savvy,” the Daily News said the job “needs a pit bull of a cop, and Kerik is darn sure that,” and the Post editorial page crowed, “Kerik’s the One.”
The Fall: In fact, he wasn’t the one, and considering all the dirt that’s emerged, was never going to be. The die was cast probably years before Bush gave Bernie the nod: Buettner says the trail to his recent stories goes back to a scandal involving a corrections official who allegedly used city workers on the 2002 Pataki campaign. Some of the damaging revelations date back to the 1980s.
But even if Kerik was DOA as a cabinet secretary, how did he manage to get to the threshold? Ultimately, Levitt blames 9-11. After the attack, he says, “The bottom line is, critical thinking stops.” Bernie’s burn-up could reverse that. Now Giuliani’s role in promoting Kerik is under scrutiny.
Maybe Kerik should have stayed in Spin Alley.