Bye-bye, Bernie

Published December 13, 2004 5:42PM (EST)

The White House tried to slip the Bernie Kerik story into the news black hole that is late Friday night, and yet it's Monday and everyone is still talking about it. For the Bush administration, the first major botch of a second-term Cabinet pick -- unless you consider choosing as attorney general the legal architect of Abu Ghraib torture "botching" a nomination, and we wouldn't blame you if you did -- looks more amateur hour as information continues to be revealed about Kerik's background. And it wasn't just Kerik's "nanny problem." Maybe it's us, but having an arrest warrant issued in your name for unpaid condo fees, of all things, testifying in court about an alleged affair with an underling, making millions off a company that sells weapons to the agency you're named to head, being accused of abusing authority while investigating the private lives of employees, and having a spotty record as interim Iraqi interior minister (and there's more where that came from) constitute baggage that should have given the White House pause even before Kerik "discovered" recently -- how shocked he must have been! -- that the woman working in his home that whole time tax-free probably was here illegally.

But it's disingenuous for the White House to blame Bernie (and his friend Rudy, too) for the entire mess. It was the job of the White House counsel's office, after all -- there's that attorney general nominee again -- to vet Kerik's nomination. Within days of Bush's announcement that Kerik was his choice to replace Tom Ridge, reporters were digging up dirt on Kerik's past; is the administration really incapable of doing the same? And how should that make us feel about their ability to get the goods on, say, bad guys who want to hurt us?

At some point -- probably not soon enough for the White House -- talk of Bernie Kerik (along with his and Rudy's near-term national political aspirations) will fade as another nominee is named to Homeland Security. But the Wall Street Journal reports that finding another taker could take a while. Apparently, no one wants the job. "The White House is scrambling to find a Homeland Security secretary with management experience and national stature to fill the void after Bernard Kerik abruptly withdrew his nomination. But few qualified contenders want the job, according to administration insiders, senior Republicans and top officials inside the Department of Homeland Security.

"Indeed, the difficulty of filling the spot has fueled speculation that President Bush could cross party lines and offer the slot to a prominent Democrat, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an early proponent -- over initial White House objections -- of creating the department.

"Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a top homeland-security legislator, floated her colleague's name in a statement Saturday. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News yesterday that 'Sen. Lieberman, if he's interested, would be a terrific pick.' A White House spokeswoman, asked about Mr. Lieberman's prospects, said the administration doesn't 'speculate' on personnel matters. Mr. Lieberman's aides couldn't be reached to comment over the weekend.

"Besides Mr. Lieberman, the short list is said to include Asa Hutchinson, an undersecretary of Homeland Security also endorsed by Sen. Collins; Joe Hagin, deputy White House chief of staff; Joe Allbaugh, a close Bush associate and former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Frances Fragos Townsend, the president's homeland-security adviser in the White House."

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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