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.
Kerik, who throughout his public life affected the look of a preposterous caricature of a political strongman, with a shaved-skull-and-mustache combo that came across as a goofball mix of Mussolini and Anton LaVey, was the guy we sent to rebuild the police forces in occupied Iraq. The Iraqis must have thought we were nuts. It’s a surprise he didn’t force the IPs to wear leather jerkins.
When he returned, George Bush nominated him to head the Homeland Security department. But Kerik suddenly withdrew from consideration under an avalanche of corruption charges.
It was the usual stuff for a corrupt city hack – ties to organized crime, contractors working on the house in exchange for handouts, affairs, tax evasion, etc. Kerik denied it all, vowing to “battle” the accusations the way he’d fought the terrorists on 9/11.
But it was all true, of course, and he eventually got hit with a smorgasbord of tax and fraud charges and sent up for four years of federal time.
That experience provided most of the fodder for this book, which appears now in pop culture as a liberal-friendly call for a reform of the corrections system.
You will see Kerik doing the book-tour circuit in the upcoming weeks. He will be pushing for lots of objectively good things, like reduced or eliminated sentences for nonviolent offenders, restored rights for felons (including, significantly, the right to run for office), relaxed sentencing guidelines and a whole lot of feel-good religion about the excesses of the drug war.
Kerik’s change of heart about prison is nothing new. In 2011, just a few short years after he had attempted to lie his way into one of the most powerful intelligence/enforcement positions in the entire world, Kerik had the balls to send a “white paper” to Eric Holder calling for a sweeping reform of the justice system, which he said was in “dire need” of repair.
By then, you see, Kerik had done time, and he must have figured Eric Holder would be just as surprised as he apparently was to learn that prison sucks.
Among the revelations in this incredible “white paper,” a landmark in the annals of cluelessness and chutzpah, is that not all people in prison are bad:
I have learned that just because these men are here in prison, they are not all “bad” men. Some are… some had no clue they were even doing anything wrong. Most would give anything to turn back time to make it right.
You see, Mr. Attorney General, there are people in prison who are sorry! Who knew?
When the Justice Department blew him off, Kerik took his case to the airwaves, among other things giving interviews to Matt Lauer in which he revealed that prison sentences for minor nonviolent drug crimes were – wait for it – excessive!
“I was with men sentenced to 10 years in prison for five grams of cocaine,” he said. “That’s insane. That’s insane.”
Remember, this is a person who had not only worked in a federal drug task force but had been a key part of the zero-tolerance policies that needlessly created criminal records for hundreds of thousands of people during the “broken windows” period of New York’s crime crackdown.
The idea that Kerik needed to get sent to prison to realize people were doing 10 years for selling sugar-pack-sized quantities of coke is… Well, it’s either absurd or extraordinarily offensive. Where the hell did he think he was sending all of those people? Busch Gardens?
The world mostly responded to Kerik’s 2013 protestations with a half-disgusted shiver (even Lauer seemed anxious to creep sideways away from Kerik during his interview), but that didn’t cool Kerik’s ardor for bringing America the ugly truth about incarceration.
The public must be informed! And by a formerly-credible white person! And so we get this latest work, a book-length recitation of the same ideas Kerik sent to the (probably) incredulous Eric Holder back in 2011.
This swindling, tax-evading, philandering slimeball, whose reptilian greed and ambition very nearly put the entire country in mortal danger (imagine the possibilities of someone with so much blackmail material in his past being put in charge of the Department of Homeland Security) actually has the gall to start off one of the early chapters by announcing to the reader what a wonderful, patriotic person he is:
I’ve been called arrogant, obnoxious and defiant by my critics. But I’m also fair, generous and sentimental, particularly when it comes to matters of the heart, my family, my wife and children, and my country…
The hallmark of any good memoir is honesty, and this book is totally devoid of it. A good book by Bernie Kerik would have been a no-holds barred account of the Sopranos-style corruption that Kerik knew all about from the inside, getting mob-connected Jersey contractors to renovate his Riverdale co-op and pay nine grand a month in rent. Or he could have provided fascinating insights into the inner workings of the Giuliani administration, or Iraq under L. Paul Bremer, the Republican Party, the defense contracting community, etc.
Instead, Jailer to Jailed spends most of its pages either pushing Kerik’s saccharine observations about the unforgiving nature of the prison system, or hyping Kerik’s pre-prison career accomplishments.
There’s even a whole chapter about how awesome and prisoner-friendly Rikers Island became under his management, how he spread the word that just because someone is a suspect or a prisoner, you shouldn’t “treat them like shit.” Not only that, he worked hard to bring some feng shui to America’s biggest jail:
We cleaned up Rikers and the other city jails, painting over the graffiti, much of it gang-related, putting in more lights and fans… I introduced crisper uniforms, lending a paramilitary pride to the officers…
It’s a con job. One of the most enthusiastic jailers in recent memory is trying to use some obvious truths about the insane overreach of America’s urban police system (a system he helped create) as currency to buy his way back to public life. And if people aren’t careful, it’ll work, and Bernie Kerik will end up being put in charge of some commission to rehabilitate America’s prisons, and in short order he’ll have someone else renovating his next co-op.
Gordon Liddy was strong enough for jail and strong enough to look himself in the mirror, which is why his book was so great. Bernie Kerik fails both tests. As commissioner he doled out about a million years in prison to (mostly poor) New Yorkers. but he himself couldn’t do four without running to weep on Matt Lauer’s shoulder. And a thousand lies later, he still wants to be taken seriously as a public voice. What a joke. Take your medicine and be quiet.