Call Me Ridge

Handicapping the next secretary of Homeland Security


When President Bush touted the creation of the Department of Homeland Security—complete with a new cabinet-level chief and an alphabet soup of agencies whose relationships to one another experts are still trying to dope out—as the most fundamental change in the federal government since Harry Truman's time, we were as impressed as anybody (even David Frum). To point out that an administration capable of creating muscular new bureaucracies and rearranging old institutions in record time has also yielded on principles of limited government by dreaming up whole new layers of bureaucratic power to go along with its newfound enthusiasm for Keynesian economics almost seems tacky.

Yet the one thing that should give both the Bush administration and its staunch supporters in the press pause is that, despite what the poets—and brother Jeb—may dream, a Bush won't always be in the White House. Sooner or later, perhaps as soon as 16 months from now, it will be a Democratic president choosing Tom Ridge's successor.

Since it's never too early to start worrying, it's also never too early to start the handicapping. Given the current crop of Democratic presidential hopefuls and Bush's sinking poll numbers, homeland hopefuls are already jockeying to become the second person to hold America's newest cabinet-level position. Here are some secretarial scenarios to lose sleep by:

Howard Dean. His crucial late-campaign withdrawal and support for the front-runner, coupled with a conscience-driven public break with the National Rifle Association in early 2004, made it inevitable that the former Vermont governor would be well rewarded by President Lieberman. As a trained physician, Dean understands that not all threats to national security come bearing dirty bombs or box cutters. "Anybody who thinks cigarette smoking and pool-side horseplay are merely public safety issues," he said in his Senate confirmation hearings, "just isn't paying attention."

Steven Bing. The Los Angeles gadabout, sometime movie producer, famously stoic father, and dependable moneybags for Democratic causes was said to be President Sharpton's first, last, and only choice to run such crucial areas as customs, immigration, port security, and border police. Bing has been tightlipped about his plans for the department, but Undersecretary Rob Reiner assures The New York Times that other people's children will come first in Bing's homeland.

Al Franken. President Gephardt's puckish sense of humor, though not widely recognized in the past, has become increasingly apparent since his inauguration. Still his choice of the one-time Stuart Smalley as America's top domestic security officer surprised many, and delighted many more! "My first order of business," said the former funnyman, "will be to protect this country from Republican fuckwads and the fucking fuckfaces who vote for them."

Janet Reno. Think there are no second acts in American life? Reno's return to the Beltway, following a failed bid for Florida governor and a lackluster stint as regional manager for Stuckey's Pecan Shoppes in the Sunshine State, was widely expected after President Graham announced his intention to shatter the "glass ceiling" at Homeland Security—a notorious "boys club" during the Bush Administration. The no-nonsense Reno plans to cut through bureaucratic tangles that prevent airport customs inspectors from being armed with flamethrowers.

Robert Byrd. When he needed a dependable hand at Homeland Security, President Edwards turned to a fellow Southerner: the Shakespeare-quoting very senior senator from the Mountain State. Though sometimes branded a spendthrift by former Senate rivals, the Department of Homeland Security's newly named Grand Imperial Wizard expects to realize substantial savings by relocating the Coast Guard's entire fleet to DHS headquarters in Charleston, West Virginia.

John McCain. In a touching gesture of inclusiveness, President Kerry reached across party lines and asked fellow 'Nam vet McCain to stay in the job he'd taken during the second Bush administration, after Tom Ridge disappeared while on a Poconos vacation in May 2006. In the spirit of Kerry's "New Frontier 2" administration ("Ask not what your country can do for you again"), McCain quickly dispatched Americorps' youth groups to assist in anti-spamming efforts with the National Infrastructure Protection Center—a move that required a threefold budget increase for the Clinton-era workfare program. But "McNasty's" real masterstroke was his application of the campaign finance restrictions he coauthored with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to all forms of political speech—from water-cooler chit-chat in offices to rallies held in public parks. In 2009, when the number of political-speech code violators surpassed drug offenders in federal prisons, McCain noted, "If loose lips sunk ships during World War I, unregulated discussion of politics remains the greatest threat to the constitution since the First Amendment."

Kgosie Matthews. President Moseley Braun's disgraced former campaign manager and fiancé proved to be a controversial choice but ultimately a wise one. Once the National Organization for Women, whose backing had propelled the longshot candidate into the Oval Office, unveiled its compelling new "multiple free gropes" position paper, the confirmation of the serial sexual harrasser Matthews was assured, freeing the secretary to implement all he learned about homeland security from his former lobbying client, the late Nigerian leader Sani Abacha.

Michael Moore. President Clark's pick for Homeland Security learned the nitty-gritty of border control while making the highly regarded films Canadian Bacon and Bowling for Columbine. Despite some confusion when the portly mockumentarian revealed that he'd supported the Clark campaign under the mistaken impression that he was supporting former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the new chief of domestic safety has promised to end the "fictitious" management of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Jimmy Carter. Experience. Integrity. An unparalleled ability to hug dictators and make flattering comments about their wives. When President Kucinich needed a person of stature at Homeland Security, he found him right in his stamping grounds of Cleveland—in town to help build a Habitat For Humanity bungalow. On the principle that the best homeland defense is international inoffense, the former president quickly jetted off for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, extracting a solemn promise from the world's "Dear Leader" to end his weapons of mass destruction program in exchange for control of both Dakotas. When Pyongyang announced it was on the verge of deploying planet-destroying photon rays and had discovered the secret of bilocation mere weeks later, Carter moved swiftly to urge an increase in foreign aid to the Hermit Kingdom.

Charles Moose. The retired police chief of Montgomery County, Maryland gave up his Crossfire seat opposite erstwhile nemesis John Allen Muhammad to take the reins at the DHS. Moose got off to a rocky start with the three-week "Beltway Clothing Snipper" episode, during which the elusive terrorist extorted the Homeland Secretary to read a cryptic note ("I have caught the snipper like a chicken held between my knees") before a nationally televised audience, but President Dean continues to express confidence in the law enforcement veteran and memoirist.

Bill Clinton. President Clinton finally made good on her "two for one" promise by bringing in the former chief executive to fill the top slot at DHS. Secretary Clinton, the eternal campaigner, set an ambitious slate with abortive efforts to add Fast Food Inspection and a vaguely defined "Monorail to the 24th Century" to the Department's already bulging profile, but his creation of a "Self-Censorship Czar" position was widely applauded. As the War On Terrorism expanded to new fronts during Operation Freedom For Tonga, Clinton and Undersecretary Eleanor Mondale pulled long hours together hatching new plans to secure the nation's hearths and homes.