Tom Ridge, Head of Homeland Security

ByClaire Shipman via logo

W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 8, 2001 -- Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge moves into his new office in the White House today, his first day as the head of the new Office of Homeland Security.

Ridge's office will be steps away from President Bush's. He will be one of the select few officials participating in top-level war council meetings every day as he oversees domestic efforts to prevent terrorist actions.

Bush and his new homeland security chief have been political and personal friends for more than 20 years. Their relationship will make all the difference to Ridge's success in Washington.

"Tom Ridge can pick up the phone and immediately call the president and say, 'Mr. President, you've got to break a tie, we've got a big problem here,'" said Gov. Frank Keating, R-Okla. "The president trusts Tom enough to say, 'Well, let's think about it. Let's talk about it' — whatever the issue may be."

Bush senior also considers Ridge a favorite — ever since he helped Bush run for president in 1980.

Bush announced Ridge as head of his newly created Office of Homeland Security during his address to Congress on Sept. 20. He created the position after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, in which hijacked airplanes struck New York and Washington, leaving thousands dead or missing. A fourth hijacked plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, Ridge's home state.

Ridge, 56, will have a staff of nearly 100 officials, most of them currently working for the White House or other agencies, plus a dozen employees of his own.

Experienced Crime Fighter

Friends say Ridge's broad portfolio — 12 years in Congress and two terms as Pennsylvania's governor — will prove invaluable, especially his focus on fighting crime.

Ridge campaigned for tough crime measures, and signed some into law as governor. Among them was a bill requiring trigger locks on guns and another making it a felony for convicted felons to possess guns.

A Political Household

Ridge was born in 1945, while his father was away in the Navy during World War II. His father later became a meat salesman in Erie, Pa., where the family lived in a housing project.

The young Ridge was an altar boy and went to Catholic school. He grew up hearing plenty of political arguments around the table: his father was an avid Democrat, his mother a Republican.

His mother, Laura Ridge, remembers him often disagreeing with his father's politics. "His dad would sit here and say something and Tom would sit there and say, 'Well, dad, I don't agree,'" she said.

His upbringing may be why the young Ridge, who looked more the athlete in high school, became a star debater instead. He won a scholarship to Harvard and received his B.A. with honors in 1967.

Served in Vietnam

Drafted into the Army while attending Dickinson Law School in Carlisle, Pa., Ridge saw combat in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star for leading an action that cleared a small Vietcong force from an area.

A friend said Ridge came home with a wary world view. "He saw combat. He saw death. When he went to Congress, he vowed that he would not allow that to happen again to our military," said the friend, Homer Mosco.

After returning to the United States, Ridge got his law degree from Dickinson in 1972. He then practiced private law and worked as an assistant district attorney before becoming active in Republican Party politics and running for Congress in 1982.

Ridge gained a seat in the House of Representatives on the first try and served six terms before taking over in the governor's mansion. Pennsylvania law limits governors to two terms, and Ridge was due to leave office in early 2003.

Friends say Ridge is not the type of person to grab the spotlight, and that too much public attention makes him uneasy.

"He's also not a guy who is ready to accept a hero's role," said Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia. "You know, that's not in his personality."

His real skill, colleagues say, is in being a diplomat and quietly charming people behind the scenes — a critical trait in the capital of cutthroat bureaucracy.

"He's got great interpersonal and political skills," said Rendell. "That's a fancy way of saying people just like him."

We have seen that Pennsylvanians like him, as does the president. Now his proving ground is the entire nation, and its security.