by Robert Herold

Am I the only person who has been reduced to a fog of flabbergast by Tom Ridge's announcement that he is thinking about stepping down just after the November elections so he can make more money?

Are we at war? I thought we were. President Bush tells us we are. The 9/11 Commission Report tells us we are. And Tom Ridge has been telling us that we are.

Let's go back in time. Say, sometime in 1943. A call comes into the White House from someplace called Los Alamos. "President Truman, General Lesley Groves is on the phone."

"Hello, Mr. President, General Groves here. Say, I'm calling to tell you that I'm going to leave the Manhattan Project. No, we won't have completed our work; no we don't yet have the bomb; but, well, you see, I've got a real opportunity in private industry -- what with the war economy and all, people with my background can just about name their price. I'm sure you understand."

Since the Manhattan Project was so secret, at least the public wouldn't have had to deal with what Groves' resignation meant.

During the '60s, I served for almost seven years in the Navy's Special Projects Office. Our task was to research and develop the second- and third-generation fleet ballistic missile system, while managing the construction of the 41-boat SSBN fleet. Our office wasn't under fire (nor was Groves for that matter), but we were on a wartime footing. From the top leadership down to the janitorial staff, everyone involved believed that the world hung by a thread -- and we were that thread. The symbols of "wartime footing" were everywhere to be seen and experienced. Our officers, for example, wore uniforms. Few in Washington, D.C., did or do. We were all expected to put in more than 60-hour weeks. We were often called in at odd hours, and were there every Saturday morning for, at a minimum, a half a day. Sometimes we slept at the office.

And about our wartime footing leadership? One of the three Navy admirals who directed the Special Projects Office over a period of 15 years drove an old, beat-up Ford Falcon. (I'd bet that Ridge doesn't.) When we arrived early in the morning, he was there already. And when we left, often late at night, he was still there. When NASA began the Apollo Project, its first action was to raid our office and make off with a half dozen or so engineers. I can recall the ringing rebuke that was delivered by Admiral Raborn at that Monday management meeting. He called us all back to arms. He denounced anyone who would put "making more money" over the task at hand. No one could have left that meeting and felt anything but more dedication.

Tom Ridge will become a footnote in history, remembered for telling us to buy duct tape. But his effectiveness isn't directly at issue. What is at issue is the message he sends to all those in Homeland Security who need to believe that the world hangs by that thread and that they are that thread. The country needs public servants who will stand that good watch.

The truth is, we are at war. The Clinton administration attempted in several ways to wage this war; for a variety of reasons, it failed. Worse yet for all of us, despite all the warnings of a frustrated Dick Clarke, the Bush administration did little more in the eight months before 9/11 except hold meetings and schedule other meetings.

All Americans should take the time to read the 9/11 Commission Report. It makes for a chilling verbal ride. The report should put the country on alert, on that wartime footing. We are out of time, that's message that Dick Clarke gave to NSC Director Condoleeza Rice in January 2001. But Ridge sends another message. He tells us -- and his people -- that it is OK to act like just one more ex-political appointee who parlays his position into a much better paying job on K Street.

To make matters worse, he used his announcement of the latest Code Orange to make a partisan statement. I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen him say in on tape. After scaring the bejeezus out of all of us, he had the gall to end his remarks with a doff of the hat to President Bush. Even though Bush opposed both Homeland Security and the 9/11 Commission, it turns out, according to Ridge, that we owe this terror alert to the president's great leadership.

So first he leaves a leadership position that sits atop our present version of the Manhattan Project. Then he politicizes his entire agency on his way out -- an agency that, like the FBI and CIA, must stay above the partisan fray lest it be held up to ridicule by the public. If you have heard the story about the boy crying wolf, you know the risks we run if we do that.

Oh yes, about that money he needs to make: Apparently the $175,000 per year he makes as Secretary of Homeland Security isn't enough for him to put his two kids through school in the manner to which they want to become accustomed. And the Bush Republicans want us to believe that Edwards is wrong about there being two Americas?

Publication date: 08/12/04

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.