Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's Book Raises Serious Questions

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

When Tom Ridge left his Homeland Security post nearly five years ago, he said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

But in a forthcoming book, Ridge says he decided to quit after two of President George W. Bush's top lieutenants pressed Ridge to raise the terror-alert level to a scarier color for what he suspected were political reasons.

Now he tells us?

By charging that fellow Cabinet members Donald Rumsfeld and John Ashcroft pushed the move, without specific evidence of a threat, the weekend before the 2004 election, Ridge is joining a growing list of former insiders who spill sensitive secrets once they are in a position to cash in.

"It's smarmy," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "Most people view individuals like that as traitors. I think they have a price to pay. Who's going to trust them in the future?"

There is something about the Beltway culture that seems to discourage protest resignations. Instead, the well-worn path is to collect your grievances, find a publisher, hit the talk-show circuit and recast yourself as a painfully honest critic of the administration you once saluted. From George Stephanopoulos to Scott McClellan, authors who dish -- or turn on their onetime allies -- draw more media coverage, and move more product off the shelves, than those who politely recount the fabulousness of their tenure.

As the country's first Homeland Security secretary, Ridge repeatedly denied that politics played a role in his terror alerts, at one point telling a New York Times reporter that he would take a lie-detector test to prove it. In that tense era, some Democrats and skeptical journalists questioned whether the Bush administration was using the technique to boost the president's political fortunes. One hotly debated example: the alert that Ridge ordered right after the Democratic convention that nominated John Kerry. In the end, Ridge did not approve the election-eve escalation in the aftermath of a threatening Osama bin Laden video. Spokesmen for Rumsfeld, the former Pentagon chief, and Ashcroft, the ex-attorney general, have denied Ridge's account.

If Ridge is changing his tune to goose sales of "The Test of Our Times," he would hardly be the first. McClellan was the picture of a loyal press secretary for Bush, but in a book last year, he accused the 43rd president of selling the Iraq war with a "political propaganda campaign" aimed at "manipulating sources of public opinion." McClellan, who had doggedly defended the war from the White House lectern, drew harsh rebukes from former colleagues for belatedly discovering what his subtitle called a "culture of deception."

Bush's eight-year tenure spawned a literary subculture of finger-pointing. Former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke charged in a book that top Bush officials pushed to invade Iraq right after the Sept. 11 attacks. Former CIA director George Tenet, who was paid a reported $4 million for his book, said the White House had made him a scapegoat for the failed intelligence on Iraqi weapons used to justify the war. Former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, who cooperated with a journalist's book, charged that Bush had little interest in policy discussions.

Stephanopoulos, who toiled in the Clinton White House before joining ABC News, revealed in a book -- which fetched nearly $3 million -- that he doubted Bill Clinton's veracity from the start. He said he no longer thought the "stupid, selfish and self-destructive" Clinton was fit to be elected. And while he didn't spare himself from criticism, Stephanopoulos also described, among other intimate moments, two scenes in which Hillary Rodham Clinton cried.

"When you serve a president, you owe him a high degree of discretion," says Paul Begala, a former Clinton White House aide who has criticized the tenor of his friend Stephanopoulos's book. "Every time a publisher suggested I write a book about my experiences with Clinton, I said, 'I don't want to lie and I don't want to tell the truth.' "

Even Hillary Clinton was expected to pull back the curtain after snagging an $8 million advance for her first lady's memoir. The book described how she was "gulping for air" and "crying and yelling" at her husband when he woke her up to say he had been lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

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