President's favor no substitute for a thorough check
WASHINGTON — Before the latest White House nannygate crisis vanishes into the mist of Googledom, there is a serious lesson to be learned from the Bernie Kerik affair. It is: Beware of the prospective nominee for whom the president has expressed his personal enthusiasm because that person is unlikely to receive a vigorous security review.
Alberto Gonzales, White House counsel and nominee for attorney general, did the prenomination review of Mr. Kerik. He knew - or should have known - that the New York City police commissioner had been less than forthcoming about his past in clearance interviews.
In 2001, when the president gave him access to classified CIA and FBI information on terrorism, Kerik failed to fill out the required questionnaire. In 2003, he failed to supply a financial-disclosure statement when he contracted to supervise training of police in Iraq. Nobody seemed to care.
In the weeks before Kerik's nomination to head the Homeland Security Department was announced, Mr. Gonzales had the job of ascertaining whether there were skeletons in Kerik's closet that the White House should know about. With a little more determination, Gonzales could have learned some of the things that are now making headlines: that Kerik had been involved in a construction company believed by New York authorities to have had ties to the mob; that he had reportedly conducted an extramarital affair in a rented apartment near ground zero; that he had been the subject of an arrest warrant in a civil dispute over payment of condominium fees.
And then, of course, there is the question of the nanny who may have been an illegal immigrant - especially pertinent because Kerik, if confirmed, would have been responsible for immigration policy.
Employment of household personnel has been a special focus of prenomination reviews since three cases - one in the first Bush administration, two in the Clinton administration - resulted in the embarrassing collapse of nominations.
In the current Bush administration it was Linda Chavez, nominee for Labor secretary. In the Clinton administration, it was Zoë Baird and Kimba Wood, nominees for attorney general. At the time, President Clinton said, "Clearly our review prior to selection failed to evaluate the issue completely."
Clearly Gonzales' examination of Bernie Kerik failed to evaluate the issue completely. But who wants to grill a top cop for whom the president has developed admiration and affection ever since Kerik conducted him through the smoking ruins of ground zero?
At his year-end news conference on Monday, President Bush expressed himself as "disappointed" at losing Kerik, but said his friend had done "the right thing" in withdrawing, given the problems he would face in a more extensive FBI examination.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.