Bernard Kerik, a mid-level New York City corrections official, was at home late one night in January 1995 when the telephone rang. It was his boss, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who wanted to talk. Kerik had been Giuliani's driver and bodyguard during much of the mayoral campaign, and he offered to meet the mayor the next morning. "No," said Giuliani. "Now." It was 10:30, but Kerik trooped over to Gracie Mansion and joined the mayor in a poorly lit parlor, where they shared a bottle of red wine that had been a gift from Nelson Mandela. "It was good to see him again," Kerik recalled. "It reminded me of the conversations we used to have during the campaign." The two men talked for a while, discussing Giuliani's first year as mayor and the unfinished tasks ahead, like cleaning up the Rikers Island jail.
Then Giuliani gave Kerik the news: He would announce the next day that he was appointing Kerik deputy corrections commissioner. The promotion would make Kerik the No. 2 man at the agency overseeing the city's prisons and lockups. Kerik balked, worried about his qualifications, but Giuliani insisted. "Just do this," the mayor said. "Do what I'm telling you." Relenting, Kerik agreed, but as he tells the story in his autobiography, what happened next was a little creepy. "In this dark sitting room, one by one, the mayor's closest staff members came forward and kissed me. I know the mayor is as big a fan of The Godfather as I am and I wonder if he noticed how much becoming part of his team resembled becoming part of a Mafia family. I was being made. I was now a part of the Giuliani family, getting the endorsement of the other family members, the other capos."
Giuliani would go on to name Kerik his top corrections officer, then his police commissioner and eventually his business partner when the city-hall years came to an end. The two were inseparable for the better part of a decade. Now Kerik, 52, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly taking bribes from businessmen with possible Mob ties and could face up to 20 years in prison and fines that could top several million dollars. Giuliani faces a different test: Could his reputation as a crime-busting prosecutor and mayor be unraveled by a handpicked police chief facing criminal conspiracy charges? Federal prosecutors unsealed the Kerik indictment at a moment when Giuliani, while leading in the national Republican nomination polls, still trails Mitt Romney in most of the early-primary states. If the Kerik case goes to trial, it will probably do so next year, when Republicans would prefer that any critical light be directed at the Democratic rival.
It is worth remembering that choosing a police chief was a mission-critical task for a mayor of New York City. The call was the most important Giuliani had to make. And so the choice of Kerik and the relationship between the two men raise legitimate questions about how Giuliani would perform as commander in chief: Does he choose his team members for their competence or for their obedience? Does he prize loyalty at the expense of ethics? Or does he now see in his relationship with Kerik clear lessons about how he rewarded and promoted those around him? For Giuliani, who is campaigning on the strength of his claim that he is a master at homeland security, Kerik is at best a question mark.
Loyalty isn't just any virtue for Giuliani; in his memoirs he called it "the vital virtue." That's an interesting plug from a man who has been married three times and informed one of his ex-wives that their marriage was over at a press conference. Loyalty, an attractive virtue in friendship, is an alarming one in politics, when faithful cronies are promoted in public service simply because they show fealty to the boss. 'Twas ever thus, of course. But with the ghosts of Alberto Gonzales and Harriet Miers still rattling around loudly in Washington, Americans have learned what can happen when a President places too much faith in those who have served him and only him for years, and then puts them in pivotal positions of law enforcement.