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Ridge's Time in Trenches Makes Him Battle-Ready

November 25, 2002|Vicki Kemper and Richard T. Cooper | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Of all the occupations that fill out Tom Ridge's resume -- prosecutor, congressman and governor of Pennsylvania among them -- perhaps none more qualifies him to become America's first secretary of Homeland Security than this: combat veteran.

Ever since President Bush proposed creating the department, a messy amalgam of 22 agencies and their 170,000 employees, old political hands have warned of a clash of bureaucratic cultures and intergovernmental turf wars.

But today, when Bush signs the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security, the strapping 6-foot-3 Ridge will be right there with him as his choice for secretary.

Ridge, 57, brings more to the job -- regularly described as requiring an encyclopedic mind and a biblical personality -- than his Bronze Star, which he earned for valor in combat in Vietnam. He also has 13 months of experience as the first director of the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Not that this always was considered an asset. In his first months in the ill-defined, some said toothless, position, Ridge collected more bruises than medals.

Now, however, the same administration officials who long were rumored to have been considering practically everyone but Ridge say he is battle-tested and fully qualified for the post, which requires Senate confirmation.

Ridge has lived through a lot since he was sworn in as Bush's homeland security advisor on Oct. 8 of last year -- a day after the United States began bombing Afghanistan and three days after the first of what would be five anthrax-related deaths. But many question how much safer the country is now, and whether the new department -- which includes neither the FBI nor the CIA -- can succeed in overcoming the intelligence failures that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ridge's aides, however, express confidence in the government's ability to protect Americans. They point to the response to last month's audiotape statements from Al Qaeda leaders, which warned vaguely of renewed attacks.

The FBI and CIA warned that the likelihood of new terrorist attacks had risen. But Ridge, arguing that warnings were of no value if they did not influence what people did, took control of the threat advisory system and established new guidelines for action, his staff said.

"He pulled all the agencies together and said the time for issuing warnings without actions was over," said Gordon Johndroe, Homeland Security spokesman.

Just because threat information was not specific enough to raise the alert status did not mean preparations didn't need to be made, Ridge told officials from various agencies.

So he set up and ran meetings and conference calls between top government officials and operators of water treatment plants, energy facilities, nuclear and chemical plants and other potential targets to discuss immediate steps they should take to protect their facilities.

While no one, including Ridge, believes that launching the massive Cabinet agency will be easy, the evidence suggests he will bring significant assets to the job. His open, elbows-in style, his 12 years in the House and his experience as a two-term governor -- coupled with the strong support he's won from state and local officials -- could all be sources of strength.

On the other hand, Ridge has never tackled a job so complicated. But many in Congress are likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I like him. I respect him," said Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Paul C. Light, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Public Service -- who jokes that only Moses could handle the job -- also said that Ridge "has the toughness and the ability to do the job."

Philadelphia lawyer David Girard-diCarlo, a friend and GOP powerbroker, says Ridge's low-key style can be deceiving. "He has great humility" and listens to everyone, Girard-diCarlo said. But once Ridge makes a decision, his friend added, he displays "a bulldog determination to get things done."

For Thomas Joseph Ridge, who was born on Aug. 26, 1945, determination was part of survival. His father struggled to support a growing family on a salesman's pay. When Ridge was born, his parents lived in public housing.

Although the family eventually had a small house of its own, Ridge grew up knowing his father had sacrificed his own hopes of becoming a lawyer for the sake of his children.

Ridge attended Catholic schools, had a paper route -- it reportedly took him three hours to make his collections because he spent so much time visiting with the customers -- and became a champion debater.

From his mother, Ridge picked up a combative streak. When schoolboy Ridge confessed to tearing his pants in a fight with a kid who jeered at his religion, Ridge's mother said, "That's fine with me. Go back and swing at him again."

Ridge got into Harvard University on a scholarship, graduated with honors and entered Penn State's law school. But he was soon drafted into the Army.

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