When Kerik answers the door, in a loose-fitting cotton sweater, khakis, and bare feet, the 49-year-old is pleasant but subdued. Before we’re even out of the two-story entry, he mentions that he nearly canceled our appointment. In the wake of his ordeal, some days are better than others. This was actually our second meeting. We’d had lunch, along with Joe Tacopina, his highly regarded, telegenic lawyer and one of his best friends, at Salute!, a bustling Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue. On that day, Kerik, who was wearing an American-flag sweater, seemed in very good spirits.
Perhaps he was energized by the response of the lunchtime crowd. As he ambled through the restaurant, shoulders back, barrel chest at full extension, a touch of that familiar post-9/11, bulletproof swagger seemed to be back. Every head turned to look at him, and several people got up to walk over and shake his hand. When lunch was finished, a well-dressed man came over to say the meal was compliments of management and effusively thanked Kerik for coming in. (Famous is famous, I guess.)
Now, only a week later at the house, in the early-morning quiet of his office, he seems a much lesser figure. The tough-guy body language is gone, and his face actually seems to sag a little. We start slowly; Kerik’s mood appears to improve as we talk.
The overarching question, the puzzle everyone seems to want solved, is why he accepted the Cabinet nomination knowing what he had to hide. How could he not have been worried it would all come out? Kerik himself said to me, “I was reminded every day by the White House that this was going to be looked at under a microscope and completely picked apart.”
So how could he go forward? Was it arrogance? Hubris? Was it the notion, often attributed to his mentor and principal sponsor, Rudy Giuliani, that there is one set of rules for those in the inner circle and another set for everyone else? There’s no question it was a little of all these things. Given his unbelievable rise to the top, it is not at all difficult to imagine he believed he was destined to do this. Someone who knows him well told me that before there was a Department of Homeland Security, Kerik used to talk about one day becoming director of the FBI.
"I went in and handed Giuliani a letter and said, ‘I gotta go. It’s not gonna end as long as I’m here,’” Kerik says. “We cried together.”
And then came 9/11. Whatever transformative effect it had on America as a country, the attack had an impact on Giuliani and Kerik that is beyond measure. In the blink of an eye, the cantankerous, abrasive, overbearing mayor who had managed, after nearly eight years in office, to wear out even many of his supporters, was reborn. The negative side of his ledger was wiped clean. He was anointed, by acclamation, America’s mayor, a national—even international—figure of strength, compassion, and virtue. And standing right there beside him was his loyal second, Bernie Kerik, who, overnight, went from being simply New York’s 40th police commissioner to a comic-book superhero.
It’s hard to overstate what happened to them. They would get a spontaneous standing ovation whenever they walked into a restaurant. They were lionized by the media. They were honored by the queen of England. The boys could do no wrong. They were sainted. Even when John Lehman, former secretary of the Navy, charged at the 9/11 hearings that New York’s Police and Fire departments were woefully unprepared for the attack—forced to respond without even having radios that functioned properly—his harsh criticism fell mostly on deaf ears. Nor did anyone seem to mind the shameless 9/11 profiteering, the fact that every handshake seemed to be a contract they were going to get later. Giuliani Partners has racked up tens of millions of dollars of business based largely on the former mayor’s post-9/11 superhero status.
But in truth, even before he was wrapped in the cloak of 9/11, Kerik had a sense of invulnerability. Given his background and the dangerous work he’d done, he’d come to believe that nothing could happen to him. One cop who’s known him for years describes Kerik’s attitude this way: “I get shot at, but I don’t get hit. I save wounded cops. I don’t get wounded.”
It was well-crafted, highly effective performance art. Kerik’s interpretation of the cop’s cop. The shaved head, the thick biceps, the stoic demeanor, the snappy-looking NYPD windbreaker with the sleeves pushed up to reveal his forearms. Kerik had a sixth sense about his image, and he recognized that perception is often reality.
Kerik, however, is adamant that he didn’t view accepting the Homeland Security nomination as taking a risk. “The process is ever-present in your mind; it’s always there,” he says, relaxing in a high-back, soft-green, tufted-velvet chair in a sitting area that’s off to one side of his office. “You worry about everything. But you know what you know and you think what you think. I have to live in the real world, and everything that’s come out is stuff I either told the White House about or they already knew.”
Suddenly, his wife, Hala, 36, comes in to tell him something. A native of Syria, she came here when she was 14; they met in the dentist’s office where she worked. “Okay,” she says after a quick hello, “I’ll get out of your hair.” Then, from the hallway, she adds, “Not that you actually have any.”
Kerik’s office, which has a flat-screen plasma TV, and a desk that looks heavy enough to crush a Cadillac, is filled with the mementos of a celebrated public life. There are pictures with Bush in various settings; lots of photos with Giuliani before, during, and after 9/11; shots of him in Iraq; and a brass plaque that reads THE BERNARD B. KERIK COMPLEX, the jail better known as the Tombs.
“Look,” he says, “I’m not the norm. I’m not the kind of person usually considered for a Cabinet post. Most of the nominees have gone to a good college and a top law school. When they get out, they work for a senator, they work in the U.S. Attorney’s office, they work at a top firm on Wall Street. They do A, B, C, and D. Well, that’s not what I was doing,” he says as a smile crosses his face. “I was booming doors, chasing the Cali cartel, getting into gunfights, and doing all kinds of crazy stuff.”