WASHINGTON – America's new homeland security chief has been noticeably absent from the spotlight since taking his Cabinet post Oct. 8, but one friend and terrorism expert says Tom Ridge's absence from the cameras doesn't mean he's in absentia.
"I think he's in the process of putting together the national strategy. And I think that's something that can't be whipped up overnight. I think it's something that has to be planned and carefully thought through, working together with not only the White House and the man he reports to directly, the president, but also the key players and the anti-terrorism strategy," said Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism.
In a rare moment of exposure, Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, said in an interview that he has been setting up shop since taking office and coming up with a comprehensive policy for tackling terrorism.
"Right now, given the authority vested in me by the president of the United States, I feel like I've got the resources of the entire government available to me — and I'll take advantage of it," Ridge said Tuesday.
Bush created the Cabinet-level post after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. His goal is to unify the disparate government agencies that fight terrorism and help Americans recover from attacks.
Some lawmakers fear Ridge won't be able to coordinate all the turf-conscious law enforcement, intelligence and disaster recovery bureaucracies that are embedded in 40-plus federal agencies.
Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., want the office's power to be set in law, and have introduced legislation that would make the office a federal agency. At least two other bills in the House would do the same.
Ridge said it's not necessary. He is one of few Bush aides who doesn't need an appointment to see the president.
"I view myself as having the broadest possible authority available to anybody who works with the president — the authority to walk down the hall into his office and say, 'Mr. President, my team ... thinks this is where this agency ought to be going. This is what we think you ought to do for that agency.' I can't imagine anybody having that kind of authority."
Ridge said the Cabinet has also been put on notice that terrorism is Bush's top priority.
"Everybody gets the message," Ridge said.
Ridge's proximity to Bush matches the men's personal closeness. The two met when Ridge volunteered to help with former President George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988.
In 1994, he narrowly won election as governor of Pennsylvania, the same year as Bush, and the two cemented the relationship. Ridge and Bush both handily won re-election in 1998.
Prior to that, Ridge served in the House, getting elected his first time out in 1982 and serving for 12 years.
On defense, he favored spending less on U.S. troops stationed in Europe and Asia and capping funds for the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1992.
In the 1980s, he opposed aid to El Salvador and the Nicaraguan Contra rebels and backed a nuclear freeze — issues that often put him at odds with his party.
Ridge grew up a soldier. He was sent to Vietnam in 1970, where as a staff sergeant, he and his squad encountered about 10 Viet Cong guerrillas as they were breaking for lunch near a village south of Da Nang. He received a Bronze Star for valor for killing an enemy sentry in the fight and "skillfully" calling in support fire.
Ridge grew up near Erie, Pa. He graduated from local Catholic schools, worked his summers as a union laborer and went to Harvard University.
"His resume, his relationship with President Bush and his experience in the statehouse and in the halls of Congress make him a natural for the job," said Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a fellow Republican.
"Gov. Ridge is exactly the right guy. It's a good appointment by the president," Gilmore said.
As homeland security director, Ridge will have a staff of about 100, many on loan from other agencies and most housed in the West Wing of the White House. He has input, but not final say, on agency budgets and policies.
Ridge said he or his staff soon would begin conducting regular briefings to help the public sort through the confusing and often-conflicting reports of terrorism, particularly the anthrax cases and related hoaxes.
"One of the responsibilities of this office is to help people get over the fear of the unknown by making it known," he said. "The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown."
Ridge said there is no guarantee against more terrorist strikes, but America was secure and getting safer. The government has stockpiles of anthrax antibiotics and smallpox vaccines and he is floating the idea of getting the public more involved in their own security.
One idea he is considering: rallying Americans to do community work such as volunteering at fire departments.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.