He had no idea what was about to hit him.
On Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Bernie Kerik was at home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, with his family. He was answering e-mail and cleaning up some paperwork when the White House called at around 4:30. Dina Powell, the president’s headhunter, was on the line.
“I’m about to go into a meeting with the president and Andy Card,” said Powell, who, at 31, was running the White House personnel office and was responsible for filling Cabinet slots, ambassadorships, and several hundred other jobs. “I need an answer. Do you want to go forward with the process?”
Kerik, of course, was under consideration for the top job at the Department of Homeland Security, and the process had quietly been in motion for a couple of weeks. He’d sent in a bio and then a detailed résumé, and was specifically instructed not to tell anyone except his wife. Not even Rudy Giuliani.
The vetting had begun, and White House staffers were calling regularly with questions about his background: jobs he’d had, places he’d lived, problems he’d encountered. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Kerik was having lunch at Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse on Ninth Avenue when then–White House counsel Alberto Gonzales called at around two o’clock. Kerik sat in the back of the restaurant and talked to him on his cell phone for an hour and a half.
Initially, it was all thrilling. A member of the president’s Cabinet. It was an unbelievable story. Kerik, the high-school dropout who had to go back and get a GED. Kerik, whose mother was an alcoholic prostitute murdered by her pimp. As one cop from Kerik’s old detail when he was police commissioner put it, “I look at where he came from, and I think, These were the guys I was usually locking up, not working for.”
Even his credentials as a New York City cop were pretty thin for someone who’d risen to the top job. Though he was heavily decorated, he was on the force only eight years, and his highest rank before being named commissioner was detective third grade. Now he was about to get one of the top jobs in the Bush administration. In truth, Kerik himself, whose robust ego knows few limits, was having trouble wrapping his mind around the concept.
But by the time Powell called on that Friday, some harsh realities were already beginning to intrude. In anticipation of the offer from the White House, Kerik had sold his stock in Taser, a company that manufactures stun guns and does business with the government. Kerik was on the board of directors, and his stock sale netted him nearly $6 million.
He thought the sale would eliminate Taser as an issue. However, he still had another 100,000 shares, which he was restricted from selling for at least six months. The same day he talked to Gonzales, a White House ethics person called him in the evening and told him he was going to have to forfeit that stock. At the time, the stock was around $50.
Kerik began to do the math. He’d lose at least several million on the Taser stock, and he’d have to give up his salary (said to be more than $500,000 a year) and bonus at Giuliani Partners. This was a big hit to take, especially for a guy who’d never made any money. “It’s strange,” Kerik says, “because on the one hand, the honor of being chosen was so great. But on the other hand, I felt like this is what I worked my whole life for and I’m finally here and now somebody wants me to take 50 percent of my net worth and give it back. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.”
There were other concerns as well. He’d have to move his family to Washington. And Kerik’s wife was worried that she and the kids would never see him. She knew from his days as police commissioner the kind of commitment these jobs required. “I didn’t see my daughter Celine walk,” he says of his 5-year-old, “until a week after she’d taken her first steps.”
And so when Powell asked Kerik if she could tell the president he wanted to go forward, it was not a simple question. “I looked at my wife, who was standing there next to me while I was on the phone, and I told Dina no. I told her I didn’t want to go ahead,” he says, pausing for a few moments to try to maintain his composure. Kerik actually turned the job down. “It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I hung up the phone, got into bed, pulled the covers over me, and cried.”
It could have ended there. Kerik could have walked away, reputation and private-sector job intact, with the satisfaction of knowing he was the president’s first choice to be secretary of Homeland Security. He would have been spared the humiliating public bludgeoning that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would begin in a few weeks.
On Saturday, Kerik kept thinking about his decision. “But by that evening, I’d resigned myself to the fact that it wasn’t happening. I really figured it was over.” On Sunday, however, Gonzales called to ask a few additional questions. Then on Monday, Powell, a friend from before the process began, called again. She tried to explain that he wouldn’t necessarily have to forfeit the stock. It was possible he could put it in a trust and, much like an IRA, retrieve it at some point in the future. “But it wasn’t really clear if this would work or not,” Kerik says. “And no matter how they explained it, it still sounded like I’d be losing it.”
Later that day, Powell called once more. This time she tried flattery. “I think you’d be really good at this job, and so do a lot of other people around here.” She made it clear that the president wanted him to do this.
“We need to know,” Powell said, “if we should set up a meeting with you and the president.” Kerik was silent for a few moments. He took a deep breath, then exhaled heavily and said, “Okay, let’s do it.” Even now, after everything that’s happened, he says, with a measure of equanimity, “How do you say no to the president?”
The next day, Kerik received his instructions. He was told to drive down to Washington. Flying or taking the train was out because the press would be watching. “A big part of the difficulty,” Kerik says, “is that so much of it is done the way it is to prevent a leak. They’re trying to do everything as quickly as possible. To be honest, I was never really clear on what would happen to my stock and what the financial picture was, because things were moving so fast.”
When he got to Washington, Kerik was supposed to check into a hotel and hang loose until he got a call. The drive, in a heavy rainstorm, was awful. It took eight hours. When the call came for him at the Marriott, Kerik put on a baseball cap and sunglasses and drove to the White House in his BMW 745.
“They had people watching for me, and they snuck me in through a rear gate,” he says. He was whisked directly to the elevator and upstairs so no one would see him. Bush, who had just returned from Canada, came out to greet him almost immediately.
In the Oval Office, the president sat in a chair and Kerik was on the couch. “He was sort of informal, but very direct,” Kerik remembers. “He said, ‘I’m looking for someone to take over Homeland Security. That’s why you’re here. Are you interested?’”