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Kerik never fit the profile of most other members in Giuliani's posse. While they spent their 20s and 30s attending prestigious colleges and law schools, Kerik was facing tests they couldn't imagine. He was born in Newark, N.J., to an alcoholic father and a street-walking mother. His parents drifted to Ohio in the 1950s and separated when he was 2. His mother left Kerik in the care of a new boyfriend's mother until his father turned up after a few months and rescued him. He never saw his mother again. After high school, Kerik joined the Army and became an MP, serving in Korea and later back home before being discharged. After a few years of working in Saudi Arabia as a hired gun in various security-related jobs, he became a cop, working first in Passaic, N.J., where he was the county's youngest jail warden ever. In 1986 he fulfilled a longtime dream and joined the NYPD.
Kerik worked his way slowly up the NYPD food chain, as both a uniformed and a plainclothes cop. He earned a reputation as flashy, intense, sometimes emotional and usually effective. "I was booming doors, chasing the Cali cartel, getting into gunfights and doing all kinds of crazy stuff," he once recalled. At the funeral of a cop in 1989 he met Giuliani, and the two bonded after Kerik became the candidate's weekend driver during the 1993 campaign. "Look," Kerik told Giuliani at the time, "you're going to spend the next two years in your car. If you can't trust the people you're with, if they don't have your back, then you're done." All that time at the wheel of Giuliani's town car gave Kerik what cops call the "hook," or juice, that he'd never had. In 1998 Giuliani put Kerik in charge of the entire corrections division, overseeing 12,000 employees and a budget of $800 million.
Giuliani has never been famous for tolerating dissent or sharing credit. His assistants in the U.S. Attorney's office had a tart nickname for the people Giuliani often promoted: they were called "the Sure-Rudys," guys who would echo the boss's instincts and decisions no matter their wisdom as in "Sure, Rudy." The Sure-Rudys weren't very smart, a former assistant said, but they would reliably tell Giuliani he was right. Giuliani forced out his innovative police commissioner William Bratton in 1996 after Bratton seemed to like the media spotlight too much for Giuliani's taste. But Kerik was loyal above all and ruled the sometimes lawless corrections operations with an iron fist. In 2000 Giuliani handed Kerik the 100-year-old solid-gold badge and named him New York's 40th commissioner of police.
Over the next few years the two grew closer. Kerik and Giuliani were literally inseparable on 9/11 and in the months that followed. Crime declined on Kerik's watch, though the big drop had taken place years before. After years of mutual hostility, City Hall's relations with local African-American leaders slowly began to heal. Kerik's press was good, but unlike Bratton, Kerik took care to stay in Giuliani's shadow when it mattered. By the time Kerik stepped down in 2002, Giuliani was the godfather to two of Kerik's kids. The two men then took their buddy act private: that year, Giuliani took in Kerik at Giuliani Partners, the firm the mayor set up to perform security and emergency consulting work for companies and governments around the globe. In addition, Giuliani and Kerik had their own partnership within the partnership, named Giuliani-Kerik, which consulted on prison management, threat assessment and crime reduction.
There was one notable flameout: in 2003 Kerik went to Baghdad and Amman to help train Iraqi police but walked out on the job after only a few months. However, the Giuliani halo was still strong enough in late 2004 for George W. Bush to nominate Kerik as the replacement for departing Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. It had begun as Giuliani's idea, of course, and the White House glommed onto it quickly. At first, the pick seemed to confirm nothing so much as Giuliani's rising star in his party's heavens. But within a few days, problems arose. Kerik, White House vetters discovered, had an undocumented nanny. And soon rumors of other, specified blemishes in his past floated around Washington. After an agonizing few days, Kerik withdrew. Giuliani seemed mystified by all the fuss. "Everything seemed pretty normal," Giuliani said that day, "at least by Washington or New York standards."