Analysis: Dangerous to leave State Houses

By MARTIN SIEFF, Senior News Analyst  |  Oct. 31, 2001 at 1:06 PM
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WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- Four former Republican state governors spearheading the Bush administration were meant to proudly lead the GOP into a new era of 21st century greatness. But their fiercely criticized performance in the current national crisis so far instead threatens to entirely discredit the

neo-Reaganite philosophy they embody.

President George W. Bush, of course was a state governor himself, twice elected to head Texas. And it was the support of his fellow GOP governors, most of them 40-something and 50-something Baby Boomer generation conservatives like himself, that propelled him to the fore of the Republican Party before a single 2000 presidential primary election had ever been held.

Bush was comfortable among his fellow GOP governors. He was grateful to them as well. And he paid these political dues with the appointments he made after becoming president. But now three more of those former governors, along with Bush himself, are in the cross hairs of national criticism for their inept performance so far in the terrorist crises that have swept the nation since the destruction of the World Trade Towers in New York City on Sept. 11.

Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin turned Health and Human Services Secretary, has arguably fared worst of all so far. Time magazine, in its Nov. 5 issue, succinctly and devastatingly summarized his alleged failures in two terse sentences: "Has no medical background and says we are prepared when evidence shows we are not. Has yet to send a clear message about how dangerous this anthrax is."

Medical health and national security officials alike in Washington are privately scathing about Thompson. They say that he did not bring in any first class people with him when he took office. He has finally approved an

emergency crash program to create enough smallpox vaccine for every individual in the United States. But it took him nine months in office and a full six weeks after the Sept. 11 catastrophe that cost possibly 5,000

American lives in New York City to reach that point.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, the former governor of Missouri, has had an easier ride so far. But major questions swirl around him too. He showed no sign of giving any priority or, indeed, taking seriously, the threat of Islamic terrorism within the United States before the catastrophic events of Sept. 11. Nor has he shown any initiative or enthusiasm up to now for forcing much needed reforms on the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Ashcroft weathered concerns about his obsessive opposition to abortion rights in his confirmation hearings. But, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out Saturday, he has even since Sept. 11 allowed that

conviction to infect his public policy positions on the crucial issue of combating bio-terrorism that could take the lives of scores of thousands, or even more, Americans.

Ashcroft has refused to meet with security officials from the Planned Parenthood organization even though they have had more experience with threats of anthrax attacks against them and the problems of safeguarding

against such contingencies than any other group in the nation.

He has also shown no willingness to force the FBI to share its intelligence with major state and city police departments. Yet evidence is emerging that it was precisely such reluctance that prevented crucial

intelligence about the airliner hijacking plots reaching major police forces, especially the New York Police Department, whose jurisdictions were targeted by the plots.

Ashcroft has also shown worrying signs of nervousness in public and of lack of judgment under pressure. Counter-intelligence and domestic security federal officials have told UPI that he has supported diverting

unprecedented numbers of FBI agents to deal with the wave of anthrax scares. And this, they say, has forced hundreds of those federal officers to be diverted from investigating and breaking up other suspected domestic

terrorist cells that may be planning more attacks on the lines of the Sept. 11 ones.

The most high profile former GOP State governor to be raised up by Bush to national leadership is Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania. Bush named Ridge director of homeland security after the Sept. 11 horrors. But after six weeks in office, administration and congressional insiders alike are already writing Ridge off as a well-intentioned lightweight who lacks the personal drive and administrative skills, and the necessary mandate from the president, to get anything done.

Descriptions of Ridge as a "domestic security czar" could not be further from the truth. He has been told he will preside over a staff of only around 100, of whom 85 will be selected not by him personally but by the 46

different federal agencies whose anti-terrorist activities he is supposed to coordinate. The buzz within the Beltway is that the agencies have unloaded "bilge water pumpers", or low quality bureaucrats they want to get rid of or can comfortably spare, on Ridge.

Also, Ridge has been given no executive authority of any of the agencies he is supposed to coordinate. And even if he had it, he has never held any significant national-level government position before and is regarded by

many of those who work with him as being hopelessly out of his depth. Like Thompson, he has already repeatedly made medical health experts wince by using absurd and nonsensical terminology, or making sweeping claims and assurances they know are not true, or cannot be verified.

Now, Ridge's position appears to have been transmuted in recent days into being a second Ari Fleischer. Fleischer is the chief White House spokesman. Ridge has now been ordered by White House strategists to give daily briefings on the crisis in addition to Fleischer's ones.

The Washington Post reported Sunday that White House officials wanted to make Ridge the "brand name" for trust and reassurance among the American public. It is striking that the president himself has not so far fulfilled

that role. Nor have Ashcroft or Thompson, the two Cabinet officers whose positions should normally make them the natural candidates for that role if the president cannot fill it.

But in any event, Ridge's daily briefings so far have been embarrassing meandering monologues that led one reporter covering them to privately joke that late night TV show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman need not worry about competition from him for their jobs.

Thompson and Ashcroft, like Bush himself, come from the Midwest and Southwest rural heartland of the modern conservative Republican Party. Only Ridge, who won Bush's trust by ensuring him a smooth coronation as GOP presidential candidate in Philadelphia a year ago, comes from the Northeast, a region whose Republicans Bush has repeatedly shown visceral distrust for.

If Bush's "big three" former governors fail to rise to the grave national challenges they now face, the results could be catastrophic for the health and even survival of millions of Americans. But they will also have disastrous effects lasting, perhaps, generations on the political fortunes of the Republican Party itself.

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