WASHINGTON -- Tom Ridge earned a Bronze Star in Vietnam, stood up to his party in Congress and eked out victory in his first race for governor of Pennsylvania.
But his past pales in comparison with his future challenges as President Bush's director of homeland security.
"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 in his first interview since taking office Oct. 8.
Bush created the Cabinet-level post in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York, hoping to unify the disparate government agencies that fight terrorism or help Americans recover from attacks.
Some lawmakers fear Ridge won't be able to ride herd over turf-conscious law enforcement, intelligence and disaster recovery bureaucracies that are imbedded in 40-plus federal agencies. They want the office's power to be set in law.
Ridge said that's not necessary because he can see the president "anytime I want." The Cabinet has been put on notice that terrorism is Bush's top priority, Ridge said confidently. And, he added: "Everybody gets the message."
That quiet confidence has been with Ridge all his life.
He grew up near Erie, Pa. He graduated from local Catholic schools, worked his summers as a union laborer and went to Harvard University.
Sent to Vietnam in the spring of 1970, Staff Sgt. Ridge and his squad one day encountered about 10 Viet Cong guerrillas as they were breaking for lunch near a village south of Da Nang.
The Army later credited Ridge with killing an enemy sentry in the fight and "skillfully" calling in support fire. Among the medals the sergeant received was the Bronze Star for valor.
Ridge was successful in his first bid for Congress in 1982 and served 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.
He was narrowly elected governor in 1994 and re-elected handily in 1998. He is barred from running again.
"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.
Ridge will have a staff of about 100, many on loan from other agencies and most housed in an office building next door to the White House. He has input, but not final say, on agency budgets and policies.
Speaking from his cramped West Wing quarters just 10 paces from the Oval Office, he said: "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 he does not need an appointment to see Bush, a privilege reserved for few White House aides, including chief of staff Andrew Card, counselor Karen Hughes and senior adviser Karl Rove.
Like that trio, Ridge is close to Bush. The two men became close friends when Ridge volunteered to help with former President George H.W. Bush's campaign in 1988.
Ridge said in the interview there could be no guarantee against more terrorist strikes, but America was secure and getting safer.
"The greatest fear is the fear of the unknown," he said. "That's why kids are scared of the dark. They don't know what's out there."
Eight days on the job, Ridge said he's seeking ways to better inform the public and get average Americans more involved in protecting the nation's shores. One budding idea is to rally Americans to do community work such as volunteering at fire departments.
"One of the responsibilities of this office is to help people get over the fear of the unknown by making it known," he said. To that end, 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.
He said the government was building up stockpiles of anthrax antibiotics and smallpox vaccines. Officials said later the administration eventually may consider inoculating children for smallpox but first must increase the stockpile.
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