When President Bush decided to create a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, he turned to an old Harvard-educated friend of 21 years and a former Vietnam combat veteran to head it -- Republican Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania.
Ridge, who was scheduled to end his second four-year term as governor in January 2003, said he planned to resign as chief executive of his state on Oct. 5, turning the reins over to his fellow Republican, Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker.
He said it "saddened" him that his appointment, which Bush announced Thursday night (9/20) in his speech to a joint session of Congress, "is even necessary." But he pledged to work with federal and state government agencies as well as the American people to make sure the nation is prepared to confront the "unusual threat" of terrorist acts on U.S. soil.
Ridge was hailed by Democrats and Republicans alike as the right pick for the job of pulling together U.S. counter-terrorism efforts that are now spread among various federal agencies, including the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency, State Department and military intelligence agencies. Ridge will also be responsible for tying together federal, local and state plans to defend against terrorist attacks, whether directed at disruption of nation's economy, transportation, food or power systems.
His supporters say Ridge's background as a governor, congressman and prosecuting attorney make him uniquely qualified for the position, both as a manager and a leader capable of coordinating multi-tasked operations. But most important, one administration official told Stateline.org, may be his background as a military combat veteran of Vietnam. Ridge served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 at the height of the war. As an Army staff sergeant in Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, Americal Division, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor.
"Vietnam, probably more than anything, taught him perseverance, patience and getting the job done under the most difficult of circumstances," this official said.
Michigan Gov. John Engler, a fellow Republican and chairman of the National Governor's Association, also stressed Ridge's combat experience, calling him a true "patriot."
"Gov. Ridge has the background needed to direct the activities of this important new office," Engler said.
Ridge, 56, grew up in Erie, Pa., where he lived with his parents in a veteran's housing project. He attended Harvard on an academic scholarship, went to law school for a year before being drafted. He finished law school on his return from Vietnam, and later became a county prosecutor.
Ridge is married and has two children. He met Bush in 1980 while the president was campaigning for his father, George Bush, in his presidential run against Ronald Reagan. The two became friends and stayed in touch over the years.
In 1982, Ridge won a seat in the U.S. House, becoming the first enlisted Vietnam combat veteran to be elected to Congress. He served 12 years, and in 1994 was elected governor. Barred by law from seeking a second term, Ridge was considered a likely cabinet pick at the start of the Bush administration. He was touted at one point as a prime candidate for Defense Secretary. But candidate Bush, according to aides, had wanted him as his vice presidential running mate before finally settling on Dick Cheney.
Cheney got the nod, when it became clear that Ridge's pro-choice stance on abortion, despite his Roman Catholic background, would not go over well with conservative Republicans. They argued he was too liberal to serve in the Bush presidency. But his position on abortion may be, at least in part, one of the reasons political analysts say Ridge has had a successful and popular run as the leader of his state. His positions - sometimes conservative or moderate on one issue and extremely liberal on another - have made it difficult for opponents to pidgeonhole him politically.
For example, he presided over some of the largest and broadest-based tax cuts in the state's history, giving the poor as well as the wealthy a reasonable share of their money back. He was equally generous to business. He also cleaned up hundreds of polluted sites around the state, while at the same time easing environmental regulations on companies. All the while, he maintained his pro-choice view even when it was unpopular and politically damaging for Republican officials to do so. He also raised some protests from conservatives when, in 1999, he helped push through one of the first gun bills in the country requiring trigger locks and imposing tougher penalties for illegal possession of firearms.