The withdrawal of Bernard Kerik as President Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security was not the surprise that the mainstream media made it out to be late Friday evening and on the front pages of newspapers over the weekend. For more than a week, dribs and drops from unnamed sources in New York City began to raise questions about Kerik and to weaken some of his support on Capitol Hill.
“When you get down to it, Kerik may have been the riskiest nominee Bush has put out there in a while,” says a Senate staffer in a leadership office. “It was not a bad nomination. Kerik was a natural. It’s just that he was not a Beltway insider type, and those guys who aren’t tend to have problems.”
The immigration status of a family nanny, in fact, according to a White House source, was not the final straw. “The camel was not broken,” says the source. “There was a chance we could have gone into this and slugged it out, but for what? Kerik would have entered that position from a weakened position and we need a guy who can knock a few heads over there.”
For that reason, the man who many thought might get it the first time, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director and close Bush ally Joe Allbaugh, is thought to be next in line for Homeland. The name of Joseph Lieberman has been put forward, but Democratic Senators were advising Lieberman to push away from the table with the Bush team. “We need him up here,” says a Democratic Senate staffer. “If he goes, it will be saying more about how far we have sunk than about how highly he holds the Bush administration.”
The White House source says that, in general, Kerik’s background check wasn’t raising a huge number of red flags. “With these kinds of nominations, there are always going to be issues. But there weren’t a ton of things,” says the source. “This was a guy who traveled the world, did undercover work, you’d expect there to be issues. The media has just gone nuts on this thing.”
In fact, Kerik is one of the few Bush nominees to make the mistake of having a wide, varied and colorful life. The media’s aggressiveness in pursuing his story is chalked up to two things, according to a New York newspaper correspondent based in Washington. “He’s a New York guy who was covered a lot by the press up there during his tenure. Perhaps some of this stuff from earlier in his life would have come out earlier, but that would have been when he was still basking in hero status from 9/11. Secondly, there are a ton of people up there in New York who aren’t about to let him become more politically influential than he already is. This is a guy who did a lot of heavy lifting for Bush during the campaign, and he did it well. There are a lot of Democratic operatives who are behind these stories. It isn’t just politically motivated, the guy did make missteps, but Democrats aren’t about to give him a free pass.”
One Democrat who may have a hand in pushing the stories was New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, who is running for governor there. Kerik had looked into running for the governorship, but failed to meet the residency requirements for the upcoming go-round.
“There may have been some gamesmanship going on,” says a New York political operative. “But that may be giving New Jersey Democrats too much credit. Taking down Kerik, though, was definitely in their interest.”
Conservatives in Washington, D.C. were continuing to grumble about the performance of Republican Sen. Susan Collins, the chairman of the Government Affairs Committee, and the point person for Republicans in the recent Intelligence Reform bill that passed through Congress last week.
Collins was given the responsibility over other, more seemingly appropriate picks, such as Sen. John Warner. But in the end, Collins appears to have done exactly what the Senate leadership and the White House wanted done, with little political back-biting in the process. “You would have been getting all kinds of stuff going on with someone like Warner or McCain or Hagel sitting there,” says a Government Affairs staffer. “Collins had the confidence of the leadership and the White House. She got the job done, and got a lot of stuff through there that others might not have let slip through.”
Included in that are many provisions related to the USA Patriot Act II legislation that was essentially killed two years ago as politically impossible to pass through the Congress.