Bernard Kerik, the erstwhile Homeland Security nominee, may have saved the country from taking the Rudy-in-'08 juggernaut too seriously.
In one swift, fantastic implosion, Kerik reminded us of the pre-9/11 Rudy, who had been lost in the mists of that horrible day three years ago. Remember the old Rudy? The controversial mayor who fired his most effective police chief, William Bratton, forced out his schools chancellor, berated the homeless, who treated police brutality as the cost of a low crime rate?
Like Kerik, he also had a compromised domestic life, keeping company with a woman who was not his wife and announcing his divorce at a news conference before telling his wife or children. Even those who thought he'd saved the city were sick of him. In a preliminary matchup in the 2000 Senate race against the flawed, carpetbagging first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, he could muster only 40%. He decided not to run.
Sept. 11 erased all that, replacing it with a mythic figure covered in ash calming the nation while a dazed president flitted across the country in Air Force One, afraid to land. Rudy was such a hero that one of George W. Bush's first televised acts after he crept back into the Oval Office was to arrange a photo op of himself on the phone with the mayor, accepting an invitation to tour the wreckage. That turned into the moment of President Bush's comeback as commander in chief.
And in case voters had forgotten the link, Karl Rove made Rudy a constant presence at the convention this past summer — conveniently held 30 blocks from ground zero — where Rudy invoked 9/11 with every breath. Then came the campaign trail, where Rudy welded the unsuccessful war in Iraq to the much harder-to-measure war on terrorism. After such service, Rudy could have told them to hire Ron Artest and they would have taken it under advisement.
The marriage was mutually beneficial. Bush got to look tough on terrorism and Giuliani got to look presidential. Odd then that the former mayor would risk all that pushing a bottom feeder like Kerik on his new best friend.
But the old Rudy saw no risk in Kerik, a slightly rougher version of Hizzoner: Both were swashbucklers who despised goo-goo government types with their sissy rules that slow you down when you know you're right. At the time of the announcement, Rudy said how proud he was: "I know personally what qualities he has."
Rudy had plucked Kerik out of obscurity after the Vietnam vet (who fathered and abandoned a child in Asia) chauffeured him during the 1983 mayoral campaign. He first made him head of the Department of Corrections and then promoted him to the most sensitive job in New York — commissioner of police — despite ample signs that the guy was shady.
Rudy didn't go off Kerik even when the top cop was fined for pulling two cops off the beat to research his memoirs, or when he was questioned about his connections to a New Jersey "waste management" company with ties to characters who would feel at home with Tony Soprano.
Kerik lived above his means, keeping two — count them, two — mistresses in addition to declaring bankruptcy and ignoring an arrest warrant for failure to pay his debts.
After Kerik withdrew last week, Rudy referred to all this sleazy behavior as mistakes that were "human" and "normal, at least by Washington or New York standards." Actually, what they were was normal by Rudy standards. Rudy apparently thinks it's normal to use an apartment near ground zero donated for the use of exhausted rescue workers to conduct an affair.
Kerik was lucky to have an illegal nanny to blame for dropping out before things got any worse. Whatever, Rudy continues to love the guy, welcoming the philandering, mobbed-up, unethical, deadbeat, immigrant-exploiting cad back to Giuliani Partners with open arms.
We know Rudy overlooked Kerik's behavior. But why did Bush, who had been warned he was no Boy Scout? The White House explains that Bush liked Bernie and Rudy so darn much he got carried away.
Come to think of it, what would Bush find not to like about a guy who, behind a swaggering, macho bravado, has busily used his political connections to amass a personal fortune? Is becoming a millionaire on the basis of your government connections really any different, when you get right down to it, from taking the taxpayer gift of a baseball stadium on the basis of your name, as Bush did?
So thanks for the memories, Bernie, and for the inside look at the operations, values and instincts of our president and his would-be successor. You never served, but you did something for your country anyway.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the LA Times.
© 2004 LA Times