Rudy Gets Bernie: Ex-Commish Kerik Goes Into Cabinet

During the opening night of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 30, Rudy Giuliani was midway through his speech, recounting yet again his experiences on Sept. 11, when he uttered the line that raised plenty of eyebrows. “As I stood watching the towers fall,” he said, “I turned to Bernie, and I said, ‘Thank God George Bush is our President.'” Sitting in the audience, Bernard Kerik looked straight at his former boss up at the podium and nodded.

The remarks may have surprised plenty of political reporters, who had never heard Mr. Giuliani recount those comments in the three years since 9/11, but the moment crystallized all there is to know about the relationship between the two bulldogs-a partnership built on loyalty, which was only reinforced in the rubble of the World Trade Center. And in the wake of Mr. Kerik’s nomination as the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, seasoned political observers see Mr. Giuliani’s fingerprints all over the appointment.

“This reflects the clout of Rudy,” says Joseph Mercurio, a veteran political consultant. “What I’ve heard is that [the White House] asked Rudy, ‘If you’re not going to take it, who should we pick?’, and he said, ‘Go with Bernie.'”

Mr. Giuliani, after all, seems to have his own sights set a little higher-on the Presidential campaign in 2008-so the appointment of his loyal aide to a cabinet-level position will only help to reinforce the legend of America’s Mayor. As the memory of 9/11 grows more distant, the appointment will keep that symbol alive in the eyes of the nation, because Mr. Kerik’s legacy was also sealed on that fateful day.

And in that logic, some observers see a calculated political move that reeks of ambition. “This was all about Rudy,” said one Republican consultant who didn’t want to be named. “He’s too good for the cabinet-Attorney General or Homeland Security, it’s beneath him, because he wants to be President. So what does he do? Put his old chauffeur in the position.”

And the political ramifications of the appointment may already be evident. A recent Quinnipiac University poll taken in Florida showed Mr. Giuliani as the top choice of state voters for the next Presidential campaign, besting Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the respondents’ own favorite son, Governor Jeb Bush.

Despite those numbers, some feel that the moral-values slant of the Republican Party will doom Mr. Giuliani’s Presidential ambitions, and that the anointing of Mr. Kerik is more advantageous for the former Mayor’s business than political career. After all, Mr. Kerik will now control the purse strings of a giant agency with a $40 billion budget, with broad discretion when it comes to handing out contracts to private companies-such as Giuliani Partners, the firm founded by Mr. Giuliani, which Mr. Kerik joined in 2002. Numerous security-related clients of Giuliani Partners, such as Nextel Communications, Cognos, Bio-ONE and Vanguard Response Systems, have much to gain from Mr. Kerik’s appointment.

“This is great for Rudy’s own personal business, because they do business with [the Department of] Homeland Security,” said Mr. Mercurio, who emphasized that he believed Mr. Giuliani is smart enough to avoid any conflict of interest in his future dealings with the agency. “In terms of helping him in a Presidential run, I find it pretty inconceivable that a Northeastern, pro-gay, anti-gun, pro-choice Republican is going to get through the primaries. Maybe he’ll end up an elder statesman or running for the Senate, but I think he becomes a substantial businessman, and this is more in line with his business moves than his political moves.”

As for Mr. Kerik, who formed a Giuliani-Kerik L.L.C. subsidiary within the company, and his business ties, he’s come under fire for joining the board of Taser International. The safety of the company’s electrical guns, which have been heavily promoted since 9/11, are now the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department in the wake of a report that 76 people in the U.S. and Canada had died since 2001 after getting jolted by the guns. A few weeks ago, perhaps in anticipation of his appointment to the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Kerik sold his shares for $5.8 million.

Despite his ties to the polarizing figure of Mr. Giuliani, the appointment of Mr. Kerik has won plaudits on either side of the political spectrum. New York’s Democratic Senators, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, heaped praise on the former police commissioner, eagerly anticipating that Mr. Kerik will help redirect more funding to the state. And despite recent profiles recounting the 9/11 commission’s criticism of the NYPD for its response to the terror attack, commission member John F. Lehman had nothing but praise for Mr. Kerik.

“I think it’s a terrific appointment, because he’s very much attuned to the needs of the city, and the need to focus funding on at-risk cities rather than the current system of geographic distribution,” said Mr. Lehman, speaking by phone on an Amtrak train returning from Washington, D.C., where he’d spent the day meeting with legislators on Capitol Hill. “He’s a very decisive guy who has a reputation for getting things done, and that’s what you need.”

Mr. Lehman, who once ridiculed the NYPD and FDNY’s command-and-control departments as “not worthy of the Boy Scouts,” explained that he doesn’t blame Mr. Kerik for those problems. “I don’t think Kerik was responsible,” he said. “My criticism was of the system that he had to work in, the overall command and control of communications. That was not his fault; that was a deep-seated set of issues.”

Mr. Kerik faces even bigger challenges at his new post, where outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge was criticized for not setting an independent course, not fighting effectively for more funding, and for promoting those color-coded alerts, which were routinely ridiculed by comics. But upcoming legislative changes in the department should make Mr. Kerik’s job easier. According to Mr. Lehman, the intelligence-reform legislation about to be passed in Congress and the streamlining of Congressional committees (up to now, 88 committees and subcommittees had some role in the affairs of the agency) will strengthen Mr. Kerik’s hand. “Those changes will allow Kerik to concentrate on a coherent program,” Mr. Lehman emphasized. “He’ll need some strong deputies, but he’s got so much credibility that he’ll be a good follow-on from Ridge.”

Built Like a Bullet

Straight out of central casting and built like a bullet, Mr. Kerik, with his dour expression and droopy mustache, brought a tough-guy, no-nonsense swagger to the NYPD and the Department of Corrections during his tenure. And his biography has the makings of a Hollywood drama-the son of a prostitute and an alcoholic father, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the Army and was sent to Korea, where he fathered a daughter, whom he reunited with only a few years ago. Then he spent two years in Saudi Arabia policing military installations and guarding the Saudi royal family, before returning to his native New Jersey to become a cop in Passaic before jumping over to the NYPD. When he was appointed to the city’s Department of Corrections, one aide told his new boss, “You’ve just hired Rambo!”

And in fact, Mr. Kerik’s autobiography, The Lost Son, may be coming to a movie theater in the near future. The book was optioned by Miramax earlier this year and is currently being adapted by screenwriter Richard Regen, for a production being overseen by independent producer Rick Schwartz and Miramax production executive Eric Robinson-a former assistant to Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein. A studio spokesperson said that “the project is in the early stages of development. And there’s no specific time table for its release.”

When he first met Mr. Giuliani, then a prosecutor, in the late 1980’s, Mr. Kerik was an undercover narcotics detective, sporting a ponytail and six diamond studs in his ear. He earned the nickname “Mayhem Magnet” while patrolling the rough streets of Harlem and Washington Heights. But a friendship was formed, and soon Mr. Kerik was the chauffeur for the Mayoral candidate, who upon election made him the commissioner of the Department of Corrections and then the NYPD.

“When you see him, he’s a big, strong guy and a black belt,” said Mr. Giuliani. “What you get to know when you work with him is how smart he is-how effective and sophisticated a manager he is.”

Although he was a big success, presiding over a huge drop in violence in city jails and continuing the historic drop in citywide crime, he also was tagged as a political prop for Mr. Giuliani to lend some grit to his administration.

“Kerik is a great cop-you’d want him watching your back,” said a Democratic political aide who declined to be named. “But he’s not a manager-Rudy just wanted a tough guy to burnish his reputation as a crime fighter.”

In recent years, Mr. Kerik has become a fervent loyalist to President Bush. During the gripping days at the end of the campaign, Mr. Kerik could be counted on to throw red meat to the partisans in the crowd, once shouting, “I fear another attack, and I fear that attack with … Senator [John] Kerry being in office responding to it.” And when he was once asked about the administration’s dubious attempts to connect Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, Mr. Kerik told Newsday, “Saddam didn’t do 9/11. But did Saddam fund and train al-Qaeda? The answer is yes. Then ask yourself, who hit the towers?”

When the President needed to help train Iraq’s new police force after last year’s invasion, he quickly called on Mr. Kerik for his NYPD experience and his 9/11 symbolism. But Mr. Kerik quit four months into the assignment, and close to 25 percent of the cops he recruited-many of whom were hired without background checks-are now reportedly being let go.

But in general, Mr. Kerik isn’t known for shying away from a challenge. Several years ago, Mr. Kerik-his barrel chest squeezed into a tank top-was lying on a bench in the second-floor weight room at the L.A. Sports Club in Rockefeller Center. He had just finished doing a dozen reps of 220 pounds when he barked at his publisher, Judith Regan, who was standing over him and spotting him during his workout: “Give me more!” Ms. Regan, who’s not known for her subservience, questioned him, and Mr. Kerik, with a few grunts, repeated his command: “Just give me more!” She complied and he finished his workout, wiping off his sweat with a towel.