Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Bernie, you're a good man"

The Rudy Giuliani campaign would dearly love to see the Bernie Kerik story go away. After all, it's tougher to make a case for Rudy's alleged post-9/11 leadership prowess if people are focusing on the fact that Rudy promoted his former chauffeur all the way to city police commissioner and to a brief nomination as federal Homeland Security director - all the while ignoring evidence that his underqualified pal was (among many other things) mixed up with a Jersey "waste management" company suspected of having ties to the mob.

Late last week, meanwhile, Kerik was indicted by the feds on 16 counts of tax evasion (allegedly hiding half a million bucks worth of income) and other crimes (including taking bribes while in public office). Kerik has pleaded not guilty to all charges. But Kerik and his indictment remain in the news, because yesterday one of his former lovers, the deposed book publisher Judith Regan, filed a lawsuit against her former employer, HarperCollins, and its parent company, the Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corporation, alleging that the media conglomerate had urged her to lie to federal sleuths about her recent affair with Kerik in order to protect the prospective potential candidacy of Rudy Giuliani.

Rudy skeptics will love that allegation - Murdoch's News Corporation also owns Fox News, which is headed by Roger Ailes, a longtime Rudy buddy who ran Rudy's first mayoral campaign - but...I digress. Kerik has the potential to stay in the news simply because of one largely-overlooked episode in his checkered career:

His failed, truncated stint as a top American official in post-invasion Iraq.

In May 2003, President Bush asked Kerik to journey to the newly liberated land, and train the Iraqi police force. (The indictment alleges that Kerik filed false statements about his suspicious personal finances while applying for that job.) Anyway, Kerik proved to be a disaster. He's a virtual metaphor for the Bush administration's well-documented incompetence in Iraq.

He is Rudy's gift to the Bush track record - which doesn't reflect too well on Rudy, who has been trying to sell voters on the notion that he has the best credentials and leadership skills to fight the war on terror.

Thumbing through my copy of George Packer's fine work on the American occupation, entitled The Assassin's Gate, I found only one passage about Kerik. That's because he was so inconsequential. American officials in Iraq were anticipating that Kerik would announce his national plan for training the Iraqi police, but, Packer writes, "instead, Kerik spent his time in Baghdad going on raids with South African mercenaries while his house in New Jersey underwent renovation. He went home after just three months, leaving almost nothing behind."

But Kerik gets close scrutiny in Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran's 2006 book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. It's not a pretty picture. Kerik was barely off the plane, in that spring of 2003, when he told a State Department official that "the situation (in Iraq) is probably not as bad as people think it is."

The author recounts: "Kerik wasn't a details guy...Kerik's first order of business, less than a week after he arrived, was to give a slew of interviews saying the situation was improving. He told the Associated Press that security in Baghdad 'is not as bad as I thought. Are bad things going on? Yes. But is it out of control? No. Is it getting better? Yes.' He went on NBC's Today show to pronounce the situation 'better than I expected.'"

Kerik was so busy going out on late-night raids (which was not part of his job) that he couldn't function in daylight (when he was supposed to do his job). As the author writes, "the all nighters meant Kerik wasn't around to supervise the Interior Ministry during the day. He was sleeping."

More from the book: "Kerik held only two staff meetings while in Iraq, one when he arrived and the other when he was being shadowed by a New York Times reporter...Despite his White House connections, Kerik did not secure funding for the desperately needed police advisers...'He was the wrong guy at the wrong time,' (an American official) said later. 'Bernie didn't have the skills.'"

Bernie didn't have the skills...That kind of assessment sounds familiar. Think of Michael Brown, who didn't have the skills to run FEMA because he'd previously been a lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association. Or George Deutsch, a kid with no science background who was handed the job of supervising NASA's top scientists, despite the fact that his skills consisted of working as an intern on the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign.

We're all familiar with the Bush credo of favoring loyalty over competence. It's worth noting that Rudy shares that credo, with Bernie as Exhibit A.

By the way, there's a fitting epilogue to the Bernie adventure in Iraq. Upon his return to America after only three months, having done little to train anybody, he was warmly welcomed at the White House, on Oct. 3, 2003, with these words of presidential praise: "He showed up (in Iraq) at times of chaos and confusion. Because of his leadership, his knowledge, and his experience, he was able to stand up a police force in Baghdad in a very quick period of time...Bernie went there and made a big difference. And for that our nation is very grateful...We're making great progress...Bernie, you're a good man."

Or, as Bush might just as easily have put it, "Heckuva job, Bernie."


I see that Mike Huckabee continues to rise in Iowa. The latest CBS News-New York Times poll has the underdog Republican candidate nipping at Mitt Romney's heels, just 50 days before the GOP caucuses. He's up to 21 percent of likely caucus-goers; Romney sits at 27.

No wonder Rudy's spinners, in their Monday conference call with reporters, were talking up Huckabee ("He's been putting together, I think, a reasonably good campaign, with the resources they have and the start they had. They've really, kind of, put things together in the last weeks, I think, very well"). They'd love it if Huckabee and Romney split the religious conservative vote.

But, as I indicated recently, a Huckabee boomlet might merely prompt the press to look more closely at Huckabee, who is more than merely a folksy, silver-tongued, guitar-playing ex-governor from Arkansas. A conservative commentator has already warned that if political reporters "only did a little homework, they would discover a guy with a thin skin, a nasty vindictive streak, and a long history of imbroglios about questionable ethics."