Thursday, January 29, 2009

The harder we fell them?

Spent some time on the phone yesterday with Bernie Kerik, once Rudy Giuliani's hand-picked NYC police commissioner and later George Bush's nominee for Homeland Security chief. (That didn't work out, for reasons we'll get to.) In the days following 9/11, Kerik was as recognizable a face as there was on TV after only Giuliani himself; he stood beside his mayor (and friend) during press conferences, and gave no small number of them in his own right, always projecting stoicism and purpose. Around that time he also wrote a best-selling book, Lost Son, in which he recounted his personal journey to pin down the facts behind the long-ago killing of his mothera prostitute who abandoned the family when Bernie was a small boy and, he ultimately theorized, was likely bludgeoned to death by her pimp.

Kerik is old-school, tough-minded, with little patience for airy talk and a particularly low tolerance for b.s. (as you'd expect of a guy who once ran the devil's den known as Rike
rs Island). There is no missing the New York in his voice and mannerhe grew up in an unforgiving area of Paterson, New Jersey, just across the Hudson—and he has a tendency to speak as if he's throwing punches. Even over a connection that paired his speakerphone with my echoing VOIP set-up, a certain Gordon Liddyesque, this-is-not-somebody-you-f**k-with quality came through loud and clear. When he gets really animated, the profanities tumble out of him like bursts of fire from the automatic weapon that dangled from his waistband as he walked the streets of Iraq back in 2003, when he served as interim Minister of the Interior. Iraq is still no garden party, but those, you'll recall, were the early days, the savage days; the days of grainy video involving orange jumpsuits and machetes.

A lot of profanities tumbled out of Kerik yesterday during a discussion of the legal travails that
have put him on the other side of the law he's worked to uphold for the past quarter-century. Though officially he cited "nanny problems" when he withdrew himself from consideration for the Homeland Security post, the storm was clearly on the horizon. You'll have no trouble Googling the various state and (current) federal allegations against Bernie Kerik, or discovering that a few years ago he was ordered to pay a $221,000 fine for a suspected quid-pro-quo situation* he shouldn't have been in. People find it disturbing and demoralizing when a person who's pledged to stand for justice is found to have skeletons in his own closet. That's understandable.

But what struck me about all this was that during my background research, as I prepared to interview Kerik, I'd come across any number of articles that introduced him as "disgraced former police commissioner" or "disgraced this-or-that," almost as if those damning phrases were part of Bernard Kerik's actual name. In almost every case, those descriptions set the tone for the article as a whole. And I sat back a minute and thought: How quickly we turn on people. We reconceptualize them and we turn on them. Some of us in media seem to delight in the job. I guess it makes us feel important. Relevant.

We can build 'em up...and we can tear 'em down.

Whatever this man did or didn't do, he gave many years of his life to public service, helping to keep the rest of us safe from harm. And he was good at it; he got results. From what I can tell, the issues now are between him and the government
which is to say, they involve private areas of Kerik's financial circumstances, and the accounting of same, that one might construe as "victimless." This isn't Enron or AIG. This isn't Bernie Madoff. I'm not apologizing for Kerik here. Laws are lawshe'd tell you that himself; he told me thatand if he broke the law, he'll have to answer for it. To my mind, this does not wipe out the person he was between birth and 2005, and the service he gave as cop, commissioner, and reassuring presence in the days after 9/11.

I'm also reminded of something I was told by another one of my sources for my Skeptic assignment on crime and punishment
this, mind you, is a former state attorney general with a reputation as a hard-liner: "I am absolutely struck almost every day by how many young people find themselves in some situation that involves the legal system, where it could have some impact on their life, and you say, 'I could've done that. I could've been there and I just didn't get caught.' " The man was speaking of juveniles**, and Bernie Kerik is no juvenile. That said, we've all done things that could've blown up in our faces. And I don't think any of us would like to be judgedto have our lives summarizedbased on our worst moments.

* involving renovations on his house by someone with alleged ties to organized crime. You will recall that Rudy Giuliani came to prominence as a Mob-buster.
** I should mention that Kerik, too, despite my characterization of him above, showed tremendous compassion for juvenile offenders and their plight.


RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps some journalists - being human like the rest of us and all - got angry at discovering they'd been duped into perpetuating an image that bore little resemblance to the actual person.

I also think that some of that resentment is directed at government officials who not only accepted, but were active participants in the deception of the public. This is nothing new... It came to a head during the Vietnam war, and has mushroomed in the years since.

Anonymous said...

You don't mention Kerik's infidelities:

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: You're right. Kerik's infidelities definitely made New York a less safe place to be. Just as, I assume, Bill Clinton was a terrible president because he spent part of his time in Monica's mouth.

Anonymous said...

If remember my scandals correctly, Kerick’s affair with his publisher Judith Reagan was one of his big problems too. From all I have read about this guy, he is his own worse enemy and that is nothing new.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon et al: Look, I don't think there's any question that Kerik hasn't done his "legacy" much good in recent years. But that's kind of the point of the post, isn't it? Do we just forget about all the stuff that came before? And even if you want to argue--as some of his revisionist detractors have--that Kerik even did the good stuff for the wrong reasons--doesn't he still get credit for the results?

Anonymous said...

"that Kerik even did the good stuff for the wrong reasons--doesn't he still get credit for the results?

What "good stuff"? I assume you are talking about 9/11. Maybe he was just a shot in the pan for that. I one hit wonder, if you will. He was not a big hit in Iraq. Look at this article from a former Iraq commander about him
Should anyone get credit for "luck"? There are many who feel Kerik was just "lucky" and did not know what to do with it. Tell me, do you stay with an unfaithful spouse just because he or she use to be faithful? Do you say "oh well he was very faithful when we first got married and should get credit for that."

Steve Salerno said...

I'm not getting the parallel, but I think I'll recuse myself at this point and leave it to others to sort out. You're not alone, Anon. Most folks have been pretty hard on the guy.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not getting the parallel, but I think I'll recuse myself at this point and leave it to others to sort out. You're not alone, Anon. Most folks have been pretty hard on the guy."

I think you need to do more research on Kerik. Kerik is a conman who has been exposed. As far as all the comments about his "love life." The reason they are mentioned is due to the fact he used his police officers, who were on duty, to help do trivial things for his girlfriends (not his wife). If I was a tax paying New Yorker, I would be upset about a homicide investigator searching for a missing cell phone on my dime. That was just one of the great Kerik stories.

Anonymous said...

You seem to have a reverential attitude toward the man, judging by your admiring descriptions of him and his deeds:

"When he gets really animated, the profanities tumble out of him like bursts of fire from the automatic weapon that dangled from his waistband as he walked the streets of Iraq back in 2003"

Most of us do not fall for that macho swagger, though. There are more important matters. The man was sworn to uphold the law, and yet he blatantly and repeatedly put himself above it for his own personal gain.

Kerik's affairs fit the pattern of someone who disregards the law and other people: He juggled two mistresses when married to his wife and mother of his children. This may not mean much to you, but it is a manifestation of the man's character. And character is destiny. Yes, he is his worst enemy and, what's more, has not shown much remorse for his crimes and misdeeds. It's hard to feel sympathy for him.

Anonymous said...

"Most folks have been pretty hard on the guy."

And for excellent reasons. There is this underused notion of personal responsibility, which Kerik disregarded time and again. I agree with Anon 2:40 that his "heroic" persona, if one can call it that, has to do with the overblown rhetoric of post 9/11. He, like Giuliani, was at the right place in the right time, and used that stroke of luck to enrich himself and create his larger-than-life image. If the media is somewhat responsible for his legend-making, he was hardly a passive participant. And yes, the bigger they get, the harder they fall. He, like Giuliani, thought there were no limits to his popularity and power. Both were wrong. They always are.

Anonymous said...

Steve, it's a bizarre series of blog posts lately. You seem to sympathize or identify with pedophiles, rapists, philanderers, and crooks. Disturbing.

Steve Salerno said...

It has often been said that what made The Godfather a great film (#1 or #2 on most lists) was that it not only presented, but made us experience--feel--the duality of human nature; it made people explore, even if only on some dim, preconscious, mostly instinctive level, the inadequacy of the easy, black-and-white definitions and value judgments we tend to apply (without much thought) in daily life.

Tangentially related: When I was a teen, Brooklyn, like many urban centers, was experiencing a great deal of unrest. There was a lot of street crime, there were random stabbings, there were muggings--in fact, that's when I recall the term mugging coming into widespread usage (and no doubt now some anonymous pedant who gets off on trivia for its own sake will have to devote 15 or 20 minutes to uncovering a few citations that refute me, and prove that the term was actually invented at 7:09 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1956). Class- and race-warfare began to flare up. In short, people were afraid. People started locking their doors, even during the day, which--strange as it may sound to more current generations--wasn't always done as recently as my boyhood years (and still isn't done in some outlying towns). But there was one place in Brooklyn where people weren't afraid, and that was the corridor running roughly from Red Hook to Mill Basin, along the Bay, and especially the area known as Bay Ridge. The reason people weren't all that afraid in those neighborhoods was simple: That was Mafia country. And residents knew that even if the cops couldn't protect us--and they couldn't--the Mob could. Even the baddest of the bad guys knew that they couldn't screw around in Carlo Gambino's neck-o-the-woods. Nor for long, anyway: The trial would take place immediately (no "speedy trial" worries in South Brooklyn) and the sentence would likely be death. So we felt safe. We hung out at night. We didn't worry much about our sisters and girlfriends and mothers.

Now, the Mafia were bad guys; no question about it. The things they did to each other in the course of "doing business" were horrific. But they had their code of honor in the neighborhood, and they served their purpose to the rest of us. (And I need to stress that if you didn't live in an urban neighborhood at the time, you can't relate to what I'm saying. You cannot appreciate the climate of fear and paranoia that ruled in most cities, including most of the rest of pre-Giuliani New York). So...what do we conclude from this? What inferences do we draw?

I don't know. But what I conclude for the purposes of this blog is that life, as it's really lived, isn't as simple as who screwed whom, or who did this thing or that thing that we, personally, might not have done. That's all I'm saying.

Elizabeth said...

I like Kerik. And I do feel sorry for the man, although do not approve his actions. He has the makings of a Greek tragedy hero -- tempted by gods and at mercy of his own weaknesses, unable to rise above them, even when given such great opportunities to do so. Indeed, as one Anon said, character is fate and Kerik's life is a poignant illustration of this truth.

I don't think any of us would like to be judged—to have our lives summarized—based on our worst moments.

No, we wouldn't.

Steve Salerno said...

Was it Freud who said "character is destiny"?

sassy sasha said...

in fairness to steve tho he can fight his own battles this is what i think he means about 'demonizing'. i don't think its fair to paint what he said yesterday as being defense of rape, that is *really* taking his point to a whole other extreme!! if he feels he's defending fairness and justice and he honestly believes that, whether you or i think he's wrong i don't see how that's defending rape! i agree the thoughts on pediophiles are kind of out there but isn't that also why a lot of us even read this, to see things in a little different light?

Elizabeth said...

Actually, Steve, my cursory research, which took exactly 21 minutes and 13 seconds, shows that the word "mugging" was invented at 7:11 p.m. on Dec. 8, 1956, and not, as you initially reported, at 7:09 p.m.

Thought you'd like to know. :)

As to Freud, he said lotsa strange things, but that one, I think (if I'm not mistaken), was that "anatomy is destiny" -- and he meant no good, especially for those of us without penises.

Oh well. As you said, let's not judge the guy on the worst* moment of his life. ;)

*OK, there were many worse ones in that dude's life. But still.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, suppose each of us picked the "best" moment of our life? No politicized b.s., total candor. I wonder what it would be?

Elizabeth said...

Oooh... That's a tough one. My first impulse was to recoil (as in, NO WAY I'm going there! Too personal.)

But, OK: what do you mean, the best as defining us as the best person (the way we would like to be -- in contrast with the worst moments when we failed miserably, etc.), or the best as in when we just felt, well, the best? (They are not the same thing, IMO -- no?)

Steve Salerno said...

I guess I'd say the high point--however you'd define it. No?

Elizabeth said...

This is a surprising difficult question, Steve. I mean it. I will have to think about it; though, frankly, the prospect of doing so scares me somewhat -- I guess in part because I'm afraid I won't be able to come up with anything. Hm.

But what was yours?

Elizabeth said...

OTOH, if you asked about the worst moments, I would have no problem coming up with the list (though would not necessarily care to share it publicly).

RevRon's Rants said...

sasha said, "...i agree the thoughts on pediophiles are kind of out there but isn't that also why a lot of us even read this,..."

I come here *because* so much of what Steve offers qualifies as being "out there." As a permanent resident of "out there" (according to some who actually know me), I find his perspectives refreshing, if occasionally somewhat deluded. :-)

My high point? Hopefully, I haven't hit it yet, but I'd have to say that to date, it probably occurred during a very private ceremony some years back, when I finally let go of some demons that had plagued me for many years. And that's all I'm gonna say...

Mike Cane said...

>>>and especially the area known as Bay Ridge.

Say what? What years are you talking about here? If it's the 1970s, what alternate dimension did you live in during *my* time growing up there that made you experience it differently? (Or did you simply go around carrying that earlier-pictured baseball bat? CSI might want to interrogate that!)

Those horrible times will probably be returning:
NYC Budget Axe To Carve Out $1 Billion

(And here, after all the Kerik comments, you probably thought you were safe calling out Bay Ridge. Ha!)

Dimension Skipper said...

Google and ye shall find...

What is the etymology of the word mugging, as in to rob somebody?

There are three potential answers to choose from, but the "chosen one" there says in part...


The early eighteenth century brought us a sense from boxing, 'to strike in the face'. The group of senses that includes what happened to your friend stems from here. The earliest related sense is 'to assault with intent to rob, especially by grabbing in a choke-hold from behind', first recorded in the 1860s (and also as a noun in the same time period). Though many dictionaries stop here, the main current sense is often just 'to rob' (not necessarily with any implication of using violence). Striking a victim in the face does not ever seem to have been a specific aspect of this sort of mugging.

__________, lists the origin simply as 1860–65, Americanism.


As they say, I never turn the TV on in the morning, but for some reason I did this morning and briefly caught a bit on The Today Show with two women talking to the hostess (I have no idea of the names of any of them) and the conversation had something to do with celebrity images/photos and specifically (or so I gathered) the issue of who should control such things or something to that effect.

I didn't even stay with it, but one of the women made the point right then that with magazine covers and whatnot the celeb (or photog or whoever) has hundreds, if not thousands, of images from which to choose the best. Whereas the paparazzi are taking photos of celebs when their guards are down and even deliberately trying to get the most unflattering angle or pose possible. I guess the true likenesses are somewhere in between mag cover and the "smoking weed in a back alley" paparazzi shot (just making that one up).

I just thought it was sort of a similar thing to what you're generally talking about in this post. Not exactly tbe same, of course, but similar as far as how one's image is portrayed and occasional tug o'war over who gets to have any say in such things.

Initial WV for preview:
"xestione"... Zesty one?

Second WV when modifying after the preview:
"clownsf"... Is that some kind of crack at me because I like science fiction? LOL!

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I think Agatha Christie may have answered your question, from the great beyond, in today's Quote of the Day on your homepage:

I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations; and suddenly find—at the age of fifty, say—that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study, or read about.
Agatha Christie

The woman has a point, though I'm not sure how she "finished the life of emotions and personal relations" at 50(!), or whether that would be so desirable. She probably did not mean it literally. The second part of her statement does sound kinda like the best time to me. One still to come, I'd hope.

To answer your question now, I would have to go back to some childhood moments that have left strong (and good, obviously) memories -- opening a new box of colored pencils and a new drawing pad, or my new school textbooks which we got every August. The colors, images and smells (of fresh books, mmm...) have always made me happy and hopeful. Even these days, on occasion, these memories flood back brought on by a similar smell, texture or a combination of colors.

And then there were the other moments and sensations -- the feel, sound and smell of leaves under my feet during evening solitary walks in my childhood city, the fog leaving halos around the street lights, and the chill of late fall in the air; or wandering alone in the fields and forests during our family's summer trips to the country to visit my grandparents. Those moments were full of strong sensual impressions, but also a distinct sense of freedom, peace and openness, both to the world and to (infinite, it seemed) possibilities, something I cannot recall experiencing that fully and clearly, if at all, in my adult life. I'm not sure whether those would be "high" moments (I cannot really think of any highs), but they were certainly among the best. If not the best indeed.

Oh, the strange life of an overexcitable introvert...;)

P.S. DimSkip, Xestione (TM) is a new weight loss product to be announced on Oprah next week.

And clownsf is something a lady would not comment on, obviously. (But I'm not a lady, so I may indulge -- it is... ah, I better shut up. :))

Yekaterina said...

Character is destiny?

I'll have to disagree with Heraclitus on this one.

Elizabeth said...

Your turn, Steve. :)

Jen said...

Steve pondered: You know, suppose each of us picked the "best" moment of our life? No politicized b.s., total candor. I wonder what it would be?

You may laugh (go ahead!), but for me it seems the best moments have consistently been ones in which I realized hope had not died after all. :)

Word verification is: thmobb

Anonymous said...

What I find amazing, is the comments that speak of Kerik as if they know him when in reality as most, they know of what they've read on the net or in the blogs as a result of the media blitz against him.

To questions his heroics, or 30 years of good deeds is to say the least a bit unfair. He was a hero to many long before 9/11 and like it or not - "the overblown rhetoric of 9/11" wasn't his doing. It was the same media and personal and professional critics that created that rhetoric. However, considering he and Giuliani had absolutely no pre-warning of the crisis that would befall them, he unlike so many others with far less crisis to handle did not fail the people of New York City or this country.

As for his heroics before 9/11, perhaps it is you, the ignorant critics that should do more research and not in the damning tabloids.

Perhaps you can question the three people he drug out of a burning building in Passaic, New Jersey in 1984, including a child and unconscious father, while off duty - before the arrival of the fire and police departments. You may want to interview the elderly man being savagely beaten by three teens that he stopped - preventing a murder. Another time off duty.

In just eight short years on patrol with the NYPD, he earned 30 medals for heroic and meritorious service, including the Medal for Valor for a gun battle in which he saved his partner's life.

With todays views of heros being major league sports figures - I guess I can understand why some of you have a hard time giving him the credit he rightfully deserves, like him or not. But for a moment, I just have to wonder for the four years he was secretly working for this government against the Cali cartel in the jungles of Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, Equator and Columbia - in which he seized 10 tons of cocaine and arrested dozens of Cali cartel members, where were you the righteous critics. Would you come close to having the courage he did... to do the work he was doing?

In 1995, Mr. Kerik drove over the bridge to Rikers Island and in the six years he ran it, he accomplished what no one ever could in the department and country's history. For more than 60 years it was known as the worst jail system in the U.S. and he left it an international role model recognized by Harvard.

His time as Police Commissioner too, was unparalleled on many fronts. Biggest crime reduction in five years - safer streets and communities and then 9/11.

As for his time in Iraq... for every critic - there's 10 supporters of his mission there... but naturally, no one writes about that. You'll listen to a commander that was removed for failure and that was responsible for allowing the terrorist cleric Muqtadar Al Sadr to remain in power and intimidate, torture and murder innocent Iraqis. Why not listen to the former IRAQI Minister of Interior that said Kerik was a hero to him and the people of his country.

A little advise from someone who knows Mr. Kerik and knows him reasonably well, begin your research before December 2004 and you'll find a 30 year impeccable record - severely different from the regurgitated criticism that's been generated by the Giuliani and Bush critics. Also, I wouldn't believe everything you read in the tabloids and lastly, pray to God everyday that you don't become a target of the media and overreaching prosecutors has as Kerik.

What's happened to this guy is wrong and what you people are doing to him is wrong as well.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you, Anon 2:30, for presenting a different -- and so detailed -- side of the issue. Indeed, we are too quick to judge and trash others, especially when they become public figures of some prominence and have the "misfortune" to demonstrate to all that they are human just like the rest of us.

I'm reminded of a friend's frequent saying (really, an admonition directed to me :), that "God writes straight with crooked lines."

Elizabeth said...

Jen, nothing to laugh about. Those moments are also among my "best" (but much more conflicted and difficult to earn the unqualified honor).

RevRon's Rants said...

"Indeed, we are too quick to judge and trash others..."

Agreed. On the other hand, some people are too quick to excuse and rationalize others' (or their own) unacceptable behavior. As is usually the case, I suspect that the "truth" of Kerik's situation lies somewhere between the products of two opposing agendas - salacious satisfaction and avoidance of personal responsibility.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: Do you really think it's 50/50, though, as your comment implies? Do you think most of us are too quick to excuse? Or too quick to judge.

I think you know where I come down on this.

RevRon's Rants said...

I think it's our nature to respond to any situation according to how it falls within our personal agendas. If we're struggling with making a living, we may tend to resent people who seem to frivolously over-consume. If we're tired of being manipulated by elected officials, we may tend to see even the slightest infraction as part of some larger, malevolent process. And if we are caught in some nefarious display of poor judgment or outright unacceptable behavior, we may tend to scratch and claw for something to take the heat off of our own lives, even to the point of redirecting that heat to someone else. It is only a commitment to perceiving and living truth that dissuades us from such compensatory behavior, and that commitment is obviously not universally held, or - truth be told - consistently held, even in the most "virtuous" of people. But that's just my take on it... not some Universal Truth. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Ron, I think you are right on, or pretty close to the Universal Truth* in that last comment.

*As I see it, at least. :)

Anonymous said...

Steve, my 'best' was when I finally left my long and comfortable but loveless marriage and started having sex again, with my new spouse.