When Kerik responded that he was, the president’s demeanor seemed to shift. “Suddenly he sat up straighter, he smoothed his tie and the front of his suit jacket with his hand, and he got kind of official, presidential. Then he said, ‘As the president, I’m offering you the job of secretary of Homeland Security.’ Whew,” Kerik says, curling up one side of his mouth and slowly turning his head from side to side, displaying a mixture of shock and awe. “It was like a head rush. One of those moments where time sort of stopped.”
Once Kerik accepted, Bush took a few minutes to explain why he’d chosen him. He told Kerik he believed that few people had a better understanding of terrorist threats to America, based on his ground-level, front-line experience with the NYPD on September 11, and in Iraq. He also said he believed Kerik could effectively communicate the seriousness of those threats to the American people.
But then he got to the heart of the matter. “He used an expression I’d never heard before,” Kerik says. “He told me he wanted someone to go in there and ‘break some china.’”
When he walked out of the Oval Office, Kerik was, in a word, stunned. He went in not knowing what to expect. Would it be like an actual job interview? Would there be specific policy questions? (What do you think of immigration on the Southwest border? How about the color-coded warning system?) Would he be asked about his law-enforcement philosophy?
“There were no policy questions,” Kerik says. “His mind was obviously made up before I walked in.”
Before leaving the White House, Kerik met with Bush chief of staff Andy Card in his office. “He talked to me a little about what would happen once the president announced I was the nominee. He said it’s going to be a difficult, grueling process.”
Given how things turned out, Card’s cautionary comment is almost laughable in its understatement. Ten days later, Kerik was forced to withdraw his name from consideration because of a nanny problem. His withdrawal, however, was only the start of his ordeal. Kerik’s decision ignited several weeks of a relentless public pounding.
It was that uniquely American spectacle known as a media pile-on. Once the blows starting raining down on him, he was like an overmatched fighter trapped in the corner of the ring. There was little he could do other than cover up and wait for it to be over.
“I thought I was prepared, but I had no idea,” Kerik says. “You can’t anticipate what’s going to happen. Let me put it this way. If they started vetting you tomorrow, you’d say, ‘There are things I need to tell you about. There’s this thing and that person.’ But once the process actually begins,” he says, waving his hand dismissively, “all that’s nothing. It’s like I stole a piece of bubble gum when I was fucking 8 and somebody saw it. It’s that kind of thing.”
Few public figures have fallen as hard as fast. Though there have certainly been other public figures forced off the stage in disgrace, Kerik’s case has an extraordinary aspect to it. Suddenly, literally overnight, the very qualities for which Bush picked him were now put forward as his most glaring liabilities.
The onetime top cop with the colorful background and the outsize ego, the tough, street-smart guy’s guy who leapfrogged his way to success and who sometimes bent the rules to get things done—the guy who would “break some china”—was portrayed as an out-of-control renegade with insatiable appetites, questionable judgment, and little respect for the rules most people live by.
Kerik withdrew on a Friday night, exactly one week after he was announced as the nominee. By Monday, the charges began to fly, and they seemed to get uglier and more serious by the moment. Kerik had ties to organized crime. He accepted thousands of dollars in unreported gifts. He had not one but two mistresses, and one of them was tempestuous publishing titan Judith Regan. He used a ground-zero apartment, designated for rescue workers, as a love nest. He’d gone bankrupt. He ran the jails and then the NYPD like his own little fiefdoms, rewarding his friends and punishing his enemies. A warrant had been issued for his arrest in New Jersey. And on it went.
Things were spinning so wildly out of control by week’s end that even two seemingly outlandish rumors began to take on some ballast; so much so that Kerik asked me, at our first meeting, if I’d heard them. The first was that he’d never even employed a nanny. The nanny was a story he, and perhaps the White House, concocted to provide him with an excuse to withdraw his name from consideration before all the more embarrassing charges came out. Laughing at the absurdity of this claim, Kerik showed me a picture of the nanny at his daughter Angelina’s birthday party.
The other story is an even more acutely cynical tale. It credits Karl Rove, the supposed “evil genius,” with a master plan that included the Kerik debacle. He wanted Bush to nominate Kerik, who he knew would then get eviscerated, thereby embarrassing, and ultimately damaging, Rudy Giuliani and hurting his chances for getting the Republican Party’s nomination in 2008.
“There were reporters who wrote things they knew weren’t true,” Kerik says, shaking his head in amazement. “That’s unfair. But human nature is what it is, and when the fucking snowball starts rolling down the hill, look out, because whatever’s in the way is gonna get flattened.”
There are moments when Kerik second-guesses his decision to withdraw. He believed at the time that the immigration issue with his nanny—she was, he says, using someone else’s Social Security number—was insurmountable. “I dropped out for what I thought was the right reason,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be a huge distraction for the president. But, shit,” he says disgustedly, “I would not have dropped out over this other stuff, all of which is either untrue, exaggerated, taken out of context, or has an explanation.”
On a cold but sunny morning recently, I drove out to Franklin Lakes to see Kerik. Though the house, which got some airtime when the traveling media circus set up camp out front, is big and has a huge circular drive, it is no Tony Soprano contemporary filled with plaster statues and lacquer furniture. With a façade of stone and pretty pale-yellow shingles, it has a traditional look. Regularly referred to in stories as Kerik’s “$1.2 million house”—a lame effort to make it sound expensive—the house is actually worth much more. Kerik bought the house that had been on the property, a small, unremarkable bi-level, for $1.2 million, and essentially knocked it down and built a new, 5,500-square-foot-plus McMansion worth several times the original purchase price. Set back from the road, the house has dark-cherry hardwood floors, a media room, a billiard room, and a gleaming, spa-like black-marble master bath.