Home security chief called `a doer'

Moderate Pa. governor is picked to coordinate fight against terrorism

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

On a spring day 31 years ago, Staff Sgt. Tom Ridge - hooked up to an IV bag, tubes running from his nostrils, more tubes draining the infection in his stomach - listened helplessly as enemy rockets passed overhead.

Unable to move him, nurses at the MASH unit in Vietnam where he lay hospitalized did the only thing they could, placing a thin mattress over his body to protect him from the falling warheads.

Now, Ridge - though in a much bigger way - is being called upon to do for his country what those nurses did for him.

"I am saddened that this job is even necessary, but it is necessary," the Pennsylvania governor said in a press conference after President Bush named him director of the new Office of Homeland Security, in charge of protecting the United States from terrorist attacks. "And so I will give it everything I have."

What Ridge has is 12 years of experience as a congressman, six years as a governor, 10 years as a prosecutor and seven months as a soldier in Vietnam (his tour abbreviated by a burst appendix). He also has a reputation as a determined, if not dazzling, public servant, whose focus is more on results than rhetoric.

Once viewed as a front-runner for vice president, then considered but not chosen for secretary of defense, Ridge, 56, is about to land in Washington, leaving Pennsylvania Oct. 5 under circumstances few ever imagined and for a job that has never existed.

"As you know, I had committed to serve out my second and final term. But over the past 10 days, our world has changed," he said. "Countless Pennsylvanians have set aside their plans to aid their countrymen. Today, I humbly follow in their footsteps."

A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Ridge is from Erie, a city in the state's far northwest corner. His supporters view him as a pragmatic and effective leader who brought jobs and prosperity to the commonwealth.

His detractors see him as bland, sometimes smug, overly friendly to big business and lucky enough to be running Pennsylvania at a time when - with economic health generating big budget surpluses - it could have pretty much run itself.

Both agree he can be as pugnacious at times as his new boss.

Ridge once laughed off criticism that he was a "dove" with this comment, in an interview with The New York Times: "I'll bet the only combat ever seen by the guy who wrote that has been in front of a Nintendo machine."

"That would be a Tom Ridge quote," said state Sen. Robert J. Mellow, Democratic floor leader in the GOP-controlled Senate. "He tends toward sarcasm."

While offering a less than flattering assessment of Ridge's job as governor, Mellow commended Ridge's decision to go to Washington. "It's a very critical position, and I think he will do well."

"He's a very strong person, much in the mold of the president," said Ernie Preate Jr., former Pennsylvania attorney general who ran against Ridge in the Republican primary for governor in 1994.

"He's a big man, an imposing man," Preate said. "He projects authority. And he's very capable. He's a doer. He's the kind of guy that likes to get things done, as opposed to a big thinker."

Ridge won the primary after Preate was accused of taking payments from owners of illegal video-poker machines. Having served a federal prison sentence, Preate practices law in Scranton and lobbies for prison reform groups.

Brings people together

"He likes to get things accomplished," he said of Ridge, "and that's what we need right now. He's a person who can bring people together, and that's what he's going to need to do. He'll be covering a lot of territory - the FBI, CIA, NSA. His biggest challenge is going to be getting all these agencies that have staked out their own territories to begin to work together."

Preate disagreed with critics who - most of them privately - say the governor, despite his Harvard education, is less than sharp. "An empty suit," as one political foe called him.

"He's a bright guy," Preate said. "He's no dummy."

Thomas Joseph Ridge was born Aug. 26, 1945, in Munhall, Pa, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and grew up in Erie. His father was a traveling salesman for the Armour Meat Co., his mother a homemaker.

Hearing-impaired at birth, Ridge attended the Cathedral Preparatory School, a Catholic High School in Erie, won a scholarship to Harvard University and graduated in 1967 with a degree in government studies.

He entered the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., but after his first year he was drafted. He served as an Army infantry staff sergeant from 1969 to 1970, receiving military commendations that included the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the Combat Infantry Badge and a Bronze Star for Valor.

The Bronze Star was awarded in connection with a skirmish in 1970 in which Ridge - though he says he remains uncertain he fired the shot - was credited with killing an enemy sentry.

Ridge has said members of his squad came upon 10 North Vietnamese soldiers eating lunch and opened fire.

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