Media goes weak-kneed for tough-guy Kerik

As he sails toward confirmation as Bush's new homeland security chief, Bernard Kerik's ugly attack on John Kerry has been conveniently forgotten.

Published December 10, 2004 12:36AM (EST)

The media has been chattering excitedly away ever since President Bush appointed New York tough-guy Bernard Kerik as the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Kerik's rapid, and unlikely, rise from beat cop to Cabinet-level appointee has kept Beltway journalists busy sketching Kerik's life story, one so colorful it was recently optioned by Miramax for an upcoming biopic. Despite his relatively brief, 16-month tenure as New York City police commissioner, which included surveying the World Trade Center wreckage at the side of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Kerik has successfully positioned himself as a top anti-terror guard dog.

With Kerik's confirmation as homeland security chief all but assured on Capitol Hill, the media has fallen dutifully in line, offering almost uniformly glowing coverage -- except for the odd mention of the opportunism charges that have surrounded Kerik since his days as Giuliani's chauffeur, and brief reminders of his failed, abbreviated attempt last year to train Iraqi police officers.

But there's one telling item from Keriks past that has been conveniently left out of the coverage, much to his relief no doubt, as he tries to display some semblance of bipartisanship during his upcoming Senate confirmation hearings. And that was Kerik's head-swiveling attack on Sen. John Kerry during the campaign last spring, when he suggested that if the Democrat were elected president, the country would practically invite another deadly terrorist strike. It was the same blunt line of attack ("Democrats = mass death") that Vice President Dick Cheney, among others, honed during the closing months of the campaign. But Kerik was the first prominent Republican to make the charge, telling the New York Daily News on April 22, "If you put Sen. Kerry in the White House, I think you are going to see that happen." (Months later Kerik claimed the Daily News had misquoted him, but he never requested a correction.)

In late July Kerik modified his stance slightly, telling CNN that a Kerry presidency would not necessarily invite another terrorist attack, but the Democrat would be weak in dealing with one if it came: "I fear another attack, and I fear that attack with a John Kerry, Senator Kerry, being in office responding to it."

Yet, with Kerik headed for a Cabinet post, his ugly attack on the Democratic nominee has slipped right down the memory hole. To date, according to a search of the Nexis electronic database, only two news organizations have reprinted Kerik's shot at Kerry: USA Today and the New York Times. Not even the New York Daily News has bothered to remind readers of their earlier story.

Instead, the press, adhering to its Bush-era tendency of playing nice with hardball-loving Republicans, describes Kerik's vicious partisan streak in the nicest possible way. On National Public Radio, Kerik was described merely as "a strong supporter of President Bush in the presidential campaign this year."

On Dec. 2, the Cox News Service described Kerik as "a solid Bush backer who took to the presidential campaign trail earlier this year to defend the administration's record against attacks by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that Bush hadn't done enough to safeguard the country against future attacks."

Two days later the New York Post's Vincent Morris penned almost the exact same description: "Kerik was a strong supporter of Bush during the re-election campaign, defending the president from charges by Democratic challenger John Kerry that Bush had failed on many fronts to adequately protect the country against new attacks."

Part of the reason the press has taken a pass on Kerik's hatchet past may be that Democrats themselves have failed to make an issue out of it. The opposition party's ingratiating tone has been set by New York's two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. No doubt anxious to keep Homeland Security's spending spigots open and flowing in their state's direction in coming years, Schumer and Clinton have both hailed the choice of Kerik, the hometown cop. Still, that's no excuse for journalists to look the other way and ignore the fact that Bush's choice for the Homeland Security position was willing to say whatever it took to get a Republican elected president  and perhaps to get himself a Cabinet appointment.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Bernard Kerik Homeland Security