Tom Ridge's down-home schmoozing made him a star among national Republicans when he was Pennsylvania governor and has given him an easy, 22-year friendship with President Bush, who doesn't care for airs.
But the winning geniality that took Ridge from a housing project to Harvard has brought him only a mixed record during his 13 months as the first presidential adviser on homeland security, a job he took just days after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Nominated yesterday for an even more daunting assignment as secretary of the sprawling new Department of Homeland Security, Ridge leaves few concrete accomplishments beyond a color-coded threat alert system that late-night comics find hilarious and state and local authorities find confusing. His chief public crisis was the still-unsolved string of anthrax attacks.
"I'm not saying everything we've done has been met with standing ovations around the country or that we didn't stub our toe or even make some mistakes," Ridge said in an interview yesterday. "We'll be forever in pursuit of the perfect system."
Bush proposed the new department in June, and White House officials said that once Ridge decided he was willing to take the job, the president never seriously considered anyone else. Bush has made loyalty a hallmark of his management style, and he has known Ridge since they campaigned together for Bush's father against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican primaries. The two men grew so close that Ridge vacationed at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Ridge is a beefy 6-foot-3 decorated Vietnam War veteran, but a White House official said Bush appreciated his disarming use of inspiration rather than intimidation. "He was willing to resign as governor to take a staff job, for a larger purpose," the official said. "The president realizes that beyond the operational challenges of the department, the public and employees are seeking reassurance."
An unconventional choice, Ridge proved a survivor in a job often denigrated as "toothless." He has struggled against officials who are jealous with information and set in their ways. Despite the prestige of his West Wing office, Ridge often had a low profile during the first year of the war on terrorism, rarely mentioned as a factor in major White House decisions. Senior aides to Bush were unable to think of a bureaucratic battle he won.
Some outside critics have been harsh. "We've wasted a year," said former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who has recommended a more muscular homeland security apparatus for years. "We're starting almost from scratch."
Ridge's function often was largely one of public relations. He traveled the country month after month to deliver his signature line to firefighters, police officers and other officials: "If the hometown is secure, then the homeland is secure."
When Congress passed legislation creating the department, Ridge celebrated by joshing with Jay Leno on NBC's "Tonight" show, gamely boxing with a dummy dressed to look like Bush. Leno, zeroing in on confusion about the meaning of the yellow, orange and red levels of the threat advisory system, asked what he should do if he's sitting at home in his underpants watching a ballgame and the threat level changes.
"Change your shorts," Ridge quipped.
Ridge's defenders point out that his job -- which focused on developing federal plans for preventing and responding to attacks, and coordinating with state and local governments -- was by nature amorphous. And with little authority on paper, he had no way to compel other parts of the government to work with him, or with each other. "He did the best he could under the circumstances," said David M. Walker, head of the Government Accounting Office, which has criticized the administration's homeland security efforts.
Ridge said the nation is "significantly" safer because of his office's initiatives at borders and elsewhere, but said the progress was impossible to quantify.
Some officials of the new department, and outsiders who have followed Bush's plans, said they found Ridge a surprising choice, since a head-cracking veteran of corporate infighting might be more suited to the task. Many of Ridge's 170,000 employees -- twice the number in Pennsylvania's government -- are disgruntled at Bush's insistence on stripping them of many civil service protections. The 22 agencies he will bring together have conflicting cultures and in some cases longtime rivalries.
"Tom is a terrific guy," said Lawrence J. Korb, an authority on homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But if you look at how he's handled this job and the way he deals with the public, you probably would have wanted someone who is tougher, who is willing to take unpopular stands and can take on vested interests."
Ridge, who at 57 is a year older than Bush, grew up in steel country, in veterans' public housing in Erie, Pa. His father sold meat and shoes. Ridge went to Harvard University on a scholarship and earned a degree in government. He was drafted into the Army after his first year at Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., and in Vietnam was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor. After finishing his law degree he went into private practice and worked as a part-time district attorney.
In 1982, Ridge became the first enlisted Vietnam combat veteran elected to the House of Representatives, and served 12 years. He was elected governor in 1994 on the slogan that he was going to "change Harrisburg -- honestly," and easily won reelection in 1998. Bush considered Ridge, a father of two, as a running mate in 2000 but conservatives objected to his support for abortion rights.
During his political climb, Ridge rarely seemed to break a sweat. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, said Ridge was the state's first modern governor to enjoy budget surpluses throughout his administration and to have his party control both chambers of the legislature the whole time. "He was never tested," Madonna said. "He never had to lay off anyone or cut a program. He was sure-footed, but you didn't find him on the cutting edge of a lot of things."
In his new job, Ridge will have a $38 billion budget and daunting responsibility. "He will be successful," said former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III (R), who heads a federal terrorism commission. "The question is how long it will take."
Ever the politician, Ridge said in the interview that he plans to begin by trying to calm jittery underlings. "We want them to go to work every single day focusing on what they were focusing on before, and that's their little slice of homeland security," he said.
Ridge turned rueful when asked for his definition of success in the new job. "Every day that nothing happens," he said. "I know that's probably not enough."