Friday, August 28, 2009

The Real Tom Ridge Book Controversy

The media has it all wrong about the real controversy in Tom Ridge’s new book, “The Test of Our Times.’ Many of them, and other assorted talking heads in The Beltway, are preoccupied with one sentence in the former (and first) secretary of homeland security’s account of the birth of the new cabinet rank department created in 2003.

That sentence states Ridge’s belief that the effort to raise the terrorist alert level just before the 2004 election was politically motivated. Although he names no one in that sentence, its proximity to the discussion which led Ridge to the conclusion suggests it includes then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and some prominent members of the Bush administration inner circle (but not the president himself). Since I don’t believe that Ridge intended to point the figure to individuals, but rather intended to comment on the political culture that existed at the time, The sentence may have been poorly placed, but in no way does it deserve so much media attention.

Critics of the Bush years in the White House of course leaped into the fray claiming it was further proof of Bush villainy in the Iraq war effort, and Bush loyalists came out swinging, charging Ridge with disloyalty for the sake of promoting his book.

The mistakes and mis-characterizations these two opposing, yet equally venomous groups, are many. Most important of all, the book contains many serious suggestions about how to fix and enhance the current state of American homeland security, and that is being lost in the current media-manufactured controversy.

First, some full disclosure. I am from Tom Ridge’s hometown of Erie, PA, and have known him for almost 30 years. My blurb praising the book is on the back dust cover. (The latter also means that I am one of the few persons who has actually read the whole book, which has a publication date of September 1).

This is not meant to be a review of the book, but rather to serve as a corrective to the current bombast of ego and political territory possession that has only just begun, and will probably play out for days and weeks in the hyper-media cauldron of the nation’s capital and its political class.

In August, 2004, Ridge was asked to, and did, include a line praising President Bush’s efforts for homeland security in his remarks. Ridge considers that a mistake on his part, and says so. As election day approached, Ridge became more determined to keep politics out of his department’s work, and when it was suggested to him by some to raise the alert after a Bin Laden video was released just days before the election, he felt it would be inappropriate, as did, he points out, everyone in his department, as well as others in the national security loop, including FBI chief Robert Mueller, and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rumsfeld and Ashcroft, and a some others, disagreed. Meetings were held, and the decision was made NOT to raise the alert. Flacks for the Bush administration have made the legalistic argument that no one explicitly said they had political reasons during these discussions, which of course was probably true since the way Washington works is that political motivations are almost always disguised behind deceptive rhetoric.

At no point in the book does Ridge directly criticize George W. Bush, on this or any other issue. Unlike the pathetic Scott McLellan, the former Bush press secretary, or former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Ridge waited until after Bush left office to write his book, and does not use his book to wreak revenge. In fact, one of my few criticisms of the book is that Ridge’s loyalty to his friend who became president prevents us from knowing what he thinks the president’s role was on security issues other than his successes.

If anyone should be upset with this book, it should be Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Ridge has been most critical, in print and on the air, of the current Congress for not closing the critical security problem of regulating our knowledge of non-American citizens leaving the country. Since 2003 (put into place under Ridge’s watch), we have detailed information of visitors coming into the country, but we do not apply the same rigor to when (or if) they leave. Readers may remember that the September 11 terrorists legally entered the U.S., but that we did not keep proper watch on whether they had departed in the proper time.

Washington is filled with hypersensitive egos whose importance are almost always exaggerated in their own minds, and with those who, for a time, hold public office, elected or appointed, and consider it their “property.” Many media spectacles in The Beltway are overwrought skirmishes over the public perception of this sensationalism, most of which quickly devolves into farce.

In this instance, I am suggesting, the distraction could mean the loss of the important discussion that Tom Ridge has attempted to engender with his book, to wit, what is the true state of homeland security in the nation today, and what can we do to improve it.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ohio’s Next Favorite Son?

More and more, young men and women are not selecting elected public service as their career choice.

But I just met a young man, 31 years old, who is a two-term state legislator from Ohio. His name is Joshua Mandel, but everyone calls him Josh. Earlier, he had served on the city council of his suburban Cleveland community. Next year, he will probably be the Republican nominee for Ohio state treasurer and win that post. Barring the unforeseen, this is only the beginning of a remarkable political career.

Most Americans do not remember that Ohio has produced more presidents of the United States than any other state. It used to be called “the cradle of the presidency.” The last Ohioan to occupy the White House was Warren Harding. Before that, William Henry Harrison, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and William Howard Taft hailed from the Buckeye State, and all of them, except for the first Harrison, were born there.

I do not know if Joshua Mandel will someday join that list, but I think it’s safe to say that state treasurer will not be his last political destination.

Mandel has already served two terms as president of the Ohio State University student government, two terms as city councilman, and two terms as a state legislator. In that same decade, he also attended and graduated from law school, got married, and served two tours as a combat intelligence U.S. marine in Iraq. He volunteered for the second tour, working in volatile and dangerous Anbar province. Mandel, like Tom Ridge before him, did not join the armed services as an officer after college. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, was first in his boot camp class, and later first in his class at Marine intelligence school. He holds the rank of staff sergeant. He was awarded two Marine Corps achievement medals during his combat tours.

As a campaigner, Mandel is already something of a legend. He was given little chance to win in any of his races, including the one at Ohio State. He won them all, primarily because he campaigned relentlessly and prodigiously, knocking on tens of thousands of doors and raising large amounts of campaign funds. His legislative district is mostly Democratic. Far left Congressman Dennis Kucinich represents half of Mandel’s district. But Republican Mandel won his most recent race with 71% of the votes. During his first term, Mandel volunteered for his second tour of duty in Iraq, Returning from that tour just in time to campaign for re-election, his Democratic opponent ran as ad saying that Mandel had been an “absentee” legislator. This was exactly the wrong thing to say about a man fighting for his country as a combat marine, particularly someone like Josh Mandel, who returned to win a landslide in a district that normally votes heavily Democratic.

Nor is Mandel bashful about his economic conservatism. While on the city council, he proposed a property tax decrease for suburban Lyndhurst. His colleagues on the council laughed out loud. They didn’t laugh, however, when 500 residents showed up at the next council meeting (usually 5-10 persons attend) and demanded the tax decrease. It passed, and was the first and only municipal property tax decrease anywhere in Ohio in memory. In the legislature, Mandel has taken the lead in several conservative tax and finance issues, including overhaul of workman’s compensation investment, and also serves on the public utilities committee as vice chairman, and on the criminal justice, judiciary and alternative energy committees. Mandel promises watchdog and conservative reform in the state treasurer’s office.

Watching Mandel perform as he tours the country to raise funds for his next race (his goal is to raise a million dollars one year before the treasurer’s race begins in earnest), there is no question that he is already something of a political presence. Bright, aggressive, quite articulate and seemingly fearless, he leaves his audiences with a sense they have met a future political superstar. He has a story to tell, and he knows how to tell it. including about two grandfathers who were the greatest influence on his life, one a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and the other a World War II veteran. Proudly Jewish, Mandel pointedly cites how the Italian Jewish side of his family were saved from the Nazis by the Catholic Church.

These are not good times for the Republican Party in Ohio and the nation. Only a few years ago, Republicans were in charge almost everywhere. Now they are in minorities, and struggling to redefine conservatism for the years ahead. Young talented persons in both parties seem more and more reluctant to enter public service with the brutal state of election campaigns, the preoccupation with fundraising, and the severe restriction on privacy and personal lives.

Josh Mandel is, for now, a contrarian phenomenon, already a model of political energy and conservative pragmatism, with accomplishments way ahead of his years, and a young man apparently going someplace, and soon.