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Published: Saturday, 10/20/2001

White House Watch: Tom Ridge picks up the baton

WASHINGTON - Tom Ridge, the new director of homeland security, says he likens his new job to being conductor of an orchestra - the music doesn't start until he arrives.

Let's just say we hope he can carry a tune because there have been some strange notes coming out of the nation's capital lately.

Former President Bill Clinton's theme song was, “Don't Worry. Be Happy.” The theme of the Bush administration has become, “Don't worry. Be wary.”

The House shut down and went home for five days, after 3,000 people who work on Capitol Hill got their noses swabbed for anthrax, turning up 31 people who work for the Senate and were exposed and who are now taking antibiotics for 60 days.

The Senate was more macho, waiting 24 hours to shut down for a long weekend, boasting of having several votes first.

Officials said anthrax was found in the ventilation system of one Senate office building; then they said none was found there.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who disappeared right after Sept. 11, reappeared suddenly on the South Lawn to wave good-bye to President Bush as he left for Shanghai.

Nuts have poured out of dark holes to perpetrate hoaxes on their fellow citizens at a time when a smear of powder colored white, gray, or cinnamon causes panic. Women's clinics were inundated with powdered letters.

Into this chaos strides Mr. Ridge, the remarkably organized, exceptionally well-groomed former governor of Pennsylvania. For nine days, 15 steps from the Oval Office in his new, cramped little office, he watched, listened, asked questions, and evaluated. People wondered what had happened to him. It was, he admitted, a case of “Where's Waldo? Where's the Guv?”

Suddenly, it came to him. He should be the man who makes sense of the hysteria.

And it was done.

A reporter asked Mr. Ridge what to believe - a postal worker in New Jersey was said to be the sixth case of anthrax infection in the country, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said it wasn't confirmed. “I'll have the answer in 30 seconds,” said Mr. Ridge. A force of nature in a blue monogrammed shirt, he moved out of the room. Seconds later, he had the answer. Yes. The postal worker was the sixth case.

On his 10th day in office, Mr. Ridge decided, it was time to assemble the administration's big dogs doing the day-to-day work on the anthrax investigation to speak to the public. In came the attorney general. And the FBI director. The surgeon general came. The postmaster general was there.

They spoke. Anthrax exposure on Capitol Hill contained. All anthrax cases so far treatable with antibiotics, although the first man known to be infected died in Florida. One million dollars offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of person or persons who mailed anthrax to Washington, Florida, and New York. Specific advice on opening mail.

“I'll do this regularly,” promised Mr. Ridge, telling reporters what they wanted to hear - he'll provide as much information as soon as he can.

Mr. Ridge is reassuring on questions an anxious public is asking - will he have enough authority, will he cut through the bureaucratic inertia, will enough money be spent on prevention and detection. “I can see the President whenever I want,” he said. “He calls me Tom, and I call him, `Mr. President.'”

Mr. Ridge is not the hands-on operations manager of what is now known as homeland defense. Those positions are all filled by men and women he says are impressive.

He's the general on horseback high on the ridge who surveys the scene below, sees the gaps, notes the strengths, and after that day's battle is fought, meets with the officers on the field to rearrange the resources, filling in the gaps, taking advantage of the strengths.

If he needs highly classified intelligence, he says, he'll get it. If he thinks more money should be spent on 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine, he says, it will be spent. If he thinks the FBI and the CIA should be broadening the ranks of those who see certain kinds of daily intelligence, he says, they'll do it. Or so he hopes.

It's a never-ending job, says the father of two teenagers. But to him it's not overwhelming. First, he'll disseminate information. Then, he'll make sure the resources are in the right place. Third, he'll develop a national strategy to protect America from the new threats it faces, give it to the President, and implement it.

Everyone will be playing from the same sheet of music. And we'll all be safer.

At least, that's his plan.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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