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DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano winning over heavyweights with her persona

BOUNCING BACK: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano describes the near-disaster Christmas Day bombing on Flight 253 as a "catalyst" for airline security fixes.
BOUNCING BACK: DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano describes the near-disaster Christmas Day bombing on Flight 253 as a "catalyst" for airline security fixes. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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"We live in a world where we don't provide guarantees. We provide the ability to identify and minimize risk, and to respond quickly should a risk materialize," she said, in a low, serious voice. "But if something happens in the United States, we also have to have confidence as a people that we'll be able to respond."

Does she ever feel panicked about the impossible number of threats? "No," she replied, without hesitation.

Told that some of her aides describe her as unflappable, almost Zen, under pressure, she did a mock double take.

"Did you say 'thin?' " she said, laughing.

Taking the 3 a.m. call

Napolitano's wry sense of humor is a defining trait. She also has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, able to spend hours discussing movies and television ("The Wire" and "Mad Men" are particular obsessions). Oddly, given her role, the only series Napolitano seems not to watch is terrorism thriller "24" on Fox. But then, she does not have to.

"Remember in the presidential campaign, the 3 a.m. ad?" said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), a friend of hers, referring to the Clinton campaign's provocative questioning of Obama's ability to handle a crisis. "The secretary of homeland security is actually the person who has to take that 3 a.m. call. Even when it is a false alarm."

When the 3 a.m. call came on Christmas Day, it came after breakfast. Napolitano was at her brother's house when news broke that a young Nigerian had detonated an explosive device hidden in his underwear during the flight's approach. She joined in flurries of phone calls, learning that the suspect had boarded with a valid visa but no extra screening despite red flags.

The following morning, while Obama and other counterterror officials stayed on vacation, Napolitano was dispatched to the television networks. On two Sunday shows, she sounded firm, insisting that, once the bomb failed to detonate, authorities had things under control. But on a third, she truncated her talking point to declare "the system worked" -- triggering a wave of criticism, especially from Republicans who ridiculed her for failing to grasp what had failed.

Within the White House, her support never waned despite the unfortunate choice of words. "Anybody in public service goes through rough spots," Emanuel said. "The question is, (a) do you learn something? And (b) how do you handle it when you go through it?" Several other officials said she had been right where it mattered -- in her actions, if not her verbiage. Tom Ridge, the first DHS secretary, said she had been unfairly criticized.

Napolitano is matter-of-fact about the incident, if not exactly thrilled to discuss it. "There's no time to sit and moan about a quote that's something you said," she said. "You've just got to move."

If further proof of her resilience were needed, it came earlier this month, as Napolitano traveled thousands of miles from Washington. Word leaked that Justice John Paul Stevens would retire from the Supreme Court after this term -- and that Napolitano, whom Obama interviewed during the last vacancy, was again on the shortlist.

A former popular governor of Arizona elected during an era of Republican dominance in 2002, Napolitano would bring to the court the kind of "real world experience" Obama said he prefers. And there is no question she would want the job. Described by friends as a striver with higher aims, she has been discussed as not just a justice or attorney general but perhaps even a presidential candidate.

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