Leading By Example
What makes the new homeland security chief tick
Way back in 1986, Rudy Giuliani was getting ready to prosecute the Mother of All Mob Cases. Or at least that's what his colleagues in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan thought. But unbeknown to nearly all of them, Giuliani, who ran the office like a feudal lord, had been bitten by the politics bug and decided that going after white-collar crooks and crooked pols was the quicker way to Gracie Mansion, long the official home of New York's mayors. The mob case, however, was a doozy. For the first time ever, the feds were hauling the bosses of all five New York Mafia families before a judge and jury, and with Carmine "the Snake" Persico, Tony "Ducks" Corallo, and all the other old Mustache Petes in the dock, there would be no end of tabloid headlines. But Giuliani's mind was made up. He would take a pass on the historic "Commission" case. Instead, he reached down to one of the youngest lawyers in his office, a rail-thin kid with just a few years of trial experience, and told him to get ready to go to trial.
Mike Chertoff never looked back. After winning slam-dunk guilty verdicts in the Commission case, he went on to become one of the nation's top federal prosecutors, first in New York, then in New Jersey, before moving down to Washington to run the entire Criminal Division of the Justice Department. After that he took up the more scholarly life of a federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia, but when George W. Bush needed someone to take on what may be the single most thankless and difficult job in Washington, Chertoff hung up his robes and headed south again.
Undoable? It has been said that there are things about management that no sane person would consider desirable. That's true in spades of Chertoff's new job. As secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, he oversees a hydra-headed bureaucracy fashioned from 22 different federal agencies comprising 180,000 employees. The job? Protecting America from terrorist attack. The job, in the end, may be undoable, and running the vast homeland security agency may be, too.
But if anyone can pull off either task, friends and former associates say, it's Chertoff. The same kind of intensity and passion for detail that led him to master the many arcane pieces of evidence in the Commission case two decades ago, Chertoff's admirers say, will be every bit in evidence as he wraps his long, bony arms around the homeland security agency and leads it into the lists against an evolving but ever dangerous enemy in the war on terrorism.
This story appears in the July 18, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.