Ridge on the Ledge : WILL THE HOMELAND SECURITY CHIEF BE AN EFFECTIVE OVERSEER OR ANOTHER SPINNER

Article excerpt

As the anthrax attack widened and the White House bungled its response to terrorism-by-mail, the Bush Administration sought help (please!) from Tom Ridge, the newly appointed director of the newly created Office of Homeland Security. Here was an opening for Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, past congressman, decorated Vietnam vet and best buddy of George W. Bush. He could reassure and inform the public, and become the competent and confident front man for a helter-skelter Administration. But Ridge immediately drew criticism, as the Bush White House failed to move expeditiously to protect postal workers. He tried to look in-command during public briefings, but his remarks too often veered toward pap. In a speech, he noted that the "challenge" for the nation is to make a "transition" to an era in which citizens realize "our own country is under attack by a different kind of enemy." Don't people already know that? In an interview, Ridge was asked when he first learned of the potency of the anthrax in the letter to Senator Tom Daschle. He replied, "The first time we had a fatality." Ridge did arrange extra funds for the anthrax-ridden postal service, but it has been hard to tell whether he's truly the overseer of homeland defense programs or merely another high-level spinner.

Ridge's supposed mission is to coordinate dozens of agencies and departments involved in domestic antiterrorism efforts--the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, the Justice Department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, Health and Human Services, the Coast Guard, the Postal Service, the Border Patrol and so on--and guarantee they work smoothly with local and state authorities. Skeptical lawmakers and mayors have questioned whether his job--currently structured to render him kibitzer-in-chief--makes sense. Ridge's close friendship with Bush is a strong qualification for this position, but his background is not replete with accomplishments suggesting he can succeed in this post--that is, if anyone could.

His number-one priority, obviously, is preventing terrorism. Much of his time as Pennsylvania governor was devoted to law enforcement, yet, like most Republicans, Ridge focused not on crime prevention but on increasing punishment for criminals--a specialty not entirely relevant to thwarting suicide bombers. In fact, based on his record, there is little reason to believe Ridge will fancy out-of-the-box thinking, especially in the areas of crime and civil liberties. In 1994 Ridge, a pro-choice GOP congressman, campaigned for governor as a tough-on-crime candidate. He attacked his Democratic foe, who had chaired the Pardons Board, for having voted for the release of fifty-five lifers, one of whom went on to rape a woman. Once in office Ridge convened a special legislative session on crime. Thirty-seven bills passed, most of them increasing criminal penalties and bolstering the power of prosecutors and police. Over the next five years Pennsylvania courts would find unconstitutional key pieces of this legislative frenzy--including a harsh mandatory sentencing act, a law shortening the time for death-penalty appeals and legislation toughening the commutation process for inmates. In July the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigated a law enacted under Ridge that compelled teens charged with certain crimes to be tried as adults. The paper found that "the law has proved to be both unfair and ineffective," noting that "teens sent to adult lockups are more likely to commit new crimes when they get out than teens sent to juvenile reform schools, where they get education and counseling."

Ridge was an ardent fan of the death penalty, signing more than 200 death warrants; three people were executed on his watch. While he was governor, state funding was shut off for the Center for Legal Education, Advocacy and Defense Assistance, which in five years had won more than 160 stays of execution and overturned a dozen death sentences. …