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Columns : Editorial

For Want of a Nail: Tom Ridge

A cop’s withdrawal from consideration to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security reveals a serious problem with the process.

January 01, 2005  |  by - Also by this author

It's not his fault. But Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has always reminded me of a particularly ineffective basketball coach at my college. The coach was universally known as a nice guy, and he had this "innovative" way of signaling what play he wanted his team to run by holding up brightly colored cards on the sidelines. Heck, Ridge even looks a little like the guy. Which in my memory is not good. We went 4 and 26 that year.

Does that mean that I think Ridge is a big loser? Not really. I think he was presented with an impossible task, one that I'm not sure was really in the best interest of the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security employs some 180,000 people who work in 22 disparate agencies. And why anyone thought that merging all of these inefficient elements into one enormous inefficiency was a good idea escapes me.

It probably even escaped Ridge. But the Vietnam veteran and former Pennsylvania governor was a good soldier, he followed orders and by all accounts did a yeoman's job of implementing the will of the White House and creating this monster.

As is often the case, the guy who puts something like DHS together may not be the best person to keep it running. So regardless of why Ridge chose to depart DHS, it was probably a good move for him and for the country.

And a week after Ridge made his announcement President Bush seemed to have the ideal candidate for the job, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. I applauded that choice.

What the DHS needs after Ridge is no-nonsense leadership from a take-charge leader. Kerik is the kind of tough-guy, New York street cop who would have either righted the DHS ship or alienated everyone aboard. Either way he would have left his mark.

Unfortunately, hours before I wrote this column Kerik left his mark in the form of a signature on a letter to President Bush withdrawing his name from consideration. You see, he'd once hired an undocumented immigrant to care for his children. And boy is that a no-no when you are about to be grilled by Congress to see if you are worthy of running DHS, which includes an agency called Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now, I don't take the hiring of undocumented workers lightly. I believe illegal immigration is an ongoing threat to our security and public safety. That said, however, I can tell you that just about every powerful and successful American is guilty of this crime.

We are holding government appointees to such high standards these days that it's a wonder that anyone is willing to have his or her name placed in consideration for a post. The minute you are nominated, the press and the senate subcommittees start focusing electron microscopes into your personal and professional history. And who can measure up to that?

I don't know if Kerik would have been a great Secretary of Homeland Security. And I'll never know because he wasn't given the chance. But I do know that we aren't getting the best people for some key government positions because we are holding them up to an unrealistic standard.

There's an old saying that goes: "For want of a nail a shoe was lost. For want of a shoe a horse was lost. For want of a horse a rider was lost. And for want of a rider a battle was lost."

Former street cop Bernard Kerik could have been a very valuable rider in the battle against terrorism. Let's hope that his forced withdrawal from the fight does not leave us with lesser leadership and diminished security.

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