Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 3, 2004
By: Benjamin Wallace-Wells

STOP ME BEFORE I QUIT AGAIN!....My nominee for the best line in this morning's New York Times comes midway through a profile of Bernard Kerik:

When Mr. Kerik was appointed to a top job in the New York City Department of Correction in the mid-1990's, one official told the department's commissioner: 'Congratulations. You've just hired Rambo.'

Bernie Kerik gives good schtick. He's got a thick-necked, Sopranos kind of charm and a terrific tough guy biography after his prostitute mom was killed, he dropped out of high school, became a military policeman, then a jail warden, and then a New York City cop, a charismatic, long-haired narc, whose rise through the ranks began after he was assigned to a detail as Rudy Giuliani's personal bodyguard.

So, fascinating guy. But is he really ready for his new gig, as Director of Homeland Security, leading a tender, evolving and urgently important government agency? His new job will require mastering the knotty bureaucracies and power structures of Washington. He's never worked in the capital. It will require him to be a nimble consumer of intelligence, deciding which threats warrant action for local police departments, when he has never before worked with intelligence. It will demand that Kerik figure out a way to fix our nation's porous borders (he's never dealt with immigration or border security) make sure our planes and transportation routes are safe (nope) and master the coordination of what were once 22 separate federal agencies, none of which he's ever worked for.

Bush, sensibly, gave Kerik a pre-hire tryout in the summer of 2002 in a gig that his experience prepped him much better for, training Iraqi police. So how'd Kerik do? Pretty poorly. Kerik's credited with upping the equipment of the forces, but he also neglected to run any background checks, meaning that, after Kerik left, the Iraqi police were so corrupt and insurgent-friendly that American leaders eventually demanded a purge. I write "after Kerik left" because he only stayed in Iraq for three months, leaving with no public announcement and for reasons which remain a mystery and which Newsday, among other outlets, has been trying to uncover ever since. The job, of course, was far from finished. In October, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi complained that the American training of his force was insufficient: "[The police's] capabilities are not complete and the situation is very difficult now in respect to creating the forces and getting them ready to face the challenges." That's not all Kerik's fault, but the problem he was assigned to fix probably deserved a stay of more than ninety days.

So what does Kerik have going for him? Mostly, his experience in New York. "As Mayor Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner," Bush said in nominating Kerik, "he had great success in reducing crime in New York City." But that's a little misleading. The dramatic reversal in the city's crime rate happened in the early nineties, when then-Commissioner Bill Bratton instituted computer models of crime, "broken-windows"-style community policing and focused enormous resources on particular neighborhoods and troublespots. (Also the crack epidemic ended). During this period, Kerik was a beat cop, Giuliani's bodyguard, and then a senior officer in the city's corrections department, in all of which he performed admirably. But he wasn't yet a department policy-maker, and it's a stretch to give Kerik much credit for the city's drop in crime. By all accounts Kerik did a competent job in his sixteen months running the NYPD, in 2001 and 2002, but he was hardly a reformer, or a legendary star.

Kerik was, of course, in office on September 11, and he deserves credit for sounding calm and brave on television in the days following the event. But what has been less reported, and is to my mind more telling, is what he did after 9/11. The police department at that point was in a tough spot: facing hundreds of retirements, a city in economic difficulty, skyrocketing homeland security requirements, and a federal government busy cutting its funding for local cops. And so what did Kerik do? He quit. He traded on his 9/11 celebrity, taking a fat contract to write his memoirs and, as he would do a year later in Iraq, left someone else to do the dirty work.

For liberals, there's a lot of other stuff to raise eyebrows about Bernie Kerik. He once worked as a security chief for the Saudi royal family's hospital system. He was one of the Bush campaign's most aggressive and irresponsible attack dogs, telling the press that if John Kerry were President, the U.S. would see another 9/11. And his nomination reeks of an attempt by the administration to permanently associate the GOP's connection with 9/11. But even for conservatives, it seems hard to understand what professional qualifications this man has for leading the nation's homeland defense. The President didn't mention Kerik's experience much yesterday in the short speech presenting him, choosing instead to focus on his "leadership" qualities. But the record doesn't give much evidence of leadership: he's prematurely quit the two biggest jobs he's ever been handed, just when they got difficult.

I've never met Kerik, and so perhaps there's something I've missed, some brilliant-fix-it-all plan for homeland security that explains why the Democrats appear, so far at least, to be supporting his nomination. But in the absence of such a plan, I hope the press and Senate put his record to some rigorous, tough-minded scrutiny as the confirmation process unfolds.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells 4:12 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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