Tom Ridge was midway through his second term as Pennsylvania’s governor when terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., on 9/11. Less than a month later, President George W. Bush asked the Vietnam veteran and populist Republican to direct a new domestic security effort. A little more than 15 months after that, Ridge became the first Secretary of Homeland Security, a post he held for two years.
It was the second time Ridge had, in a sense, been drafted to aid in a war effort. In 1970, he was attending The Dickinson School of Law when he received a notice from the U.S. Selective Service System. Ridge served as a staff sergeant in the infantry and saw combat until a ruptured appendix brought him home. He became the first Vietnam-era enlisted man to win election to Congress in 1982, where he served for 12 years.
With the broad shoulders and square jaw of a gridiron hero, Ridge was said to have been high on Bush’s list of potential vice presidential candidates in 2000, but his pro-choice stance on abortion made him unattractive to the party’s right wing. He was also considered as a running mate by John McCain in the 2008 election before McCain made the surprise choice of Sarah Palin.
After stepping down from Homeland Security following Bush’s re-election in 2004, Ridge founded Ridge Global, an international consulting firm specializing in strategic planning and security issues. His posh, fifth-floor office overlooks the Farragut North Metro station in the District, to which he commutes from his home in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chevy Chase. On the de rigueur Wall of Fame in his office, Ridge, 68, can be seen gripping and grinning with such luminaries as Bush One and Bush Two, as well as Pennsylvania’s favorite son, Arnold Palmer.
Q & A
Of all the pictures on the wall, the one that most impresses me is the one of you and Arnie.
Anyone privileged to serve in public office has the opportunity to meet some remarkable people in their life, and he has become a very close friend. As great a golfer as he’s been, as accomplished an entrepreneur as he’s been, he’s just a remarkable man to hang with.
Do you play with him?
He’s knocking on 85 now, so he doesn’t play much. But I played in the pro-am at Bay Hill with him for 10 years.
Can he still shoot his age?
Ummm, he can if he’ll move up front [to the short tees].
Well, he does with his buddies, but Arnold Palmer wants to be Arnold Palmer at 35.
One quick Arnold story: Several years ago, it’s one of those beautiful fall days in Pennsylvania, soft white clouds, blue sky, leaves are turning, walking down the fairway.
He just stops in the middle of the fairway. He says, “Look around. This is my office. Now you can understand why I like to go to work every day.” [Ridge laughs.]
What’s the closest you’ve come to having that kind of feeling about a job?
Governor, no question. Of all the opportunities I’ve had to serve, this is the government enterprise where you inherit the infrastructure, but you are responsible for the team around you to promote the agenda for which you are responsible. You can be as much or as little a change agent as you want to be. It is the most exciting political job in America.
How do you think being governor would compare to being president?
I think the federal bureaucracy is a lot more independent [than the state bureaucracy]. And it seems the ideological divide is much greater than it was way back in the ’80s, when I was a congressman, and so the ability to fashion the kind of collective mindset and to build bipartisan consensus is much, much more difficult.
Do you see the level of animosity in Congress as being something unique in history, or more of a recurring theme?
There have been so many stories written about the intense debates, personal assaults, physical challenges that have happened in Congress throughout history. So I guess the notion that there’s a constant tension that sometimes rises to even occasionally personal assaults, and certainly personal insults these days, is not new. It certainly seems to be far more intense, but I think what has happened in the 21st century—with global communications and telecommunications—[enables] an internal dispute [within Congress to become] a national one. All of a sudden, people are taking sides, and I think the tensions are exacerbated. People turn on TVs these days not to be informed and educated, but to have their own point of view ratified. I think that has created a deeper divide and a bigger challenge for those who accept the need to bring people together from both sides.
What was the greatest gift and greatest challenge of where and how you grew up?
My father made a critical personal and financial decision not to accept a couple of promotions from within his company so he could continue to raise his family in northwestern Pennsylvania. He was a traveling salesman, and he was good. As a young kid, I used to travel with him. So I guess the greatest gift that I had as a young man growing up in a smaller community was—it’s going to sound corny—but just the constant support and encouragement and opportunity that my parents gave me.
Learning to appreciate relationships, learning to appreciate simple things the community offered. I’m the kid that played Little League baseball but also had the paper route. I also caddied at the same time. I remember vividly getting done caddying at a country club, my dad picked me up, I put my baseball uniform on in the back seat, he’d go to the field, help line the field. The Ridge kids were pretty blessed. My father worked two jobs all his life, never owned a new car, we never took big vacations.
That was not important, because we did so many other things that were available to us.