Over the weekend, I picked up a new memoir by Bernie Kerik, the disgraced former corrections and police commissioner of New York City, who is now trying to reinvent himself as a prison reform advocate.
There’s no way to explain how awful the new Kerik book is without first comparing it to its opposite cousin in the annals of cop-turned-inmate autobiographies: Will, the amazing rise-and-fall-and-rise memoir of crypto-fascist Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy.
When I was in my early teens, some mischievous adult gave me Liddy’s book, and it changed my life. I couldn’t stand Liddy’s politics – not many sane people can – but his life story was powerfully written, weirdly touching, inspirational. And the ending featured the kind of fantastical plot twist that only real life can provide.
Liddy, a lifelong law enforcement goon, spent his whole early adulthood crafting a tough guy persona to match his loony rightist-paranoia ethos, only to be tossed in post-middle age in federal prison, where all his paranoid fantasies suddenly become reality.
And he loved it there. If you believe the book, Liddy flourished as an inmate, finding himself as a person and hilariously leading prison revolts, executing Watergate-style break-ins into prison offices, lying in wait for shank-fights and becoming one of the most prolific jailhouse lawyers of all time.
In sum, and in advance of a comparison to Kerik’s book, consider the following. G. Gordon Liddy as a civilian D.A., F.B.I. agent and White House spook was a merciless zero-tolerance law-and-order zealot, but when he himself got tossed in jail for leading the Watergate burglary, you didn’t see him suddenly expressing surprise that prison is a brutal, vicious, unfair experience.
He didn’t, in other words, emerge from prison a weeping, shuffling, conscience-stricken shell of himself, renouncing everything he ever stood for and begging for forgiveness. Liddy was a monster, but he at least had the decency to know what it meant to throw someone in prison before he himself had to do time.
Enter Bernie Kerik, who with this month’s publication of Holy Shit: I Was Wrong About Everything For Like Thirty Straight Years (it’s actually called From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey From Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #8488-054) will now go down as the most fugazi tough guy in the history of New York.
Kerik, like his longtime political patron Rudy Giuliani, had a stratospheric rise through local law enforcement ranks, but saw his career falter at the federal level.
He was a city cop in the Eighties, then made a brief jump to a federal narcotics task force before finally latching on to Giuliani, who made him Corrections Commissioner and then Police Commissioner during the nineties and early 2000s, the heyday of the stop-and-frisk crackdown on street crime.
Like Giuliani, he made a big impression on America during 9/11. He managed to leverage his work as police commissioner during the terrorist crisis into a key federal appointment in the Bush years.