By Richard S. Dunham Congress hasn't scheduled hearings yet on President Bush's proposal to create a Homeland Security Dept. And the new agency won't even open its doors until next year, at the earliest. But has that stopped Washington wags from speculating about the identity of the Cabinet-Secretary-to-be? Not a chance.
The frontrunner, of course, should be the man the President picked last October to head homeland-security efforts, his close personal friend, former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge. This should be an open-and-shut case. Close down the rumor mill. Just one problem: Bush won't quell the speculation. Nor will White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who declined to give Ridge a vote of confidence when he spoke recently on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Even Ridge sidestepped a query as he addressed the National Association of Broadcasters on June 10. "Time will tell who the head of that department will be," he said. "Right now, everybody's energy is focused on working with Congress and getting as much of the department, as proposed by the President, in the final package."
BELTWAY WHISPERS. What's going on here? One simple explanation, very Washington-like: Ridge is in fact Bush's choice, but the White House thinks it's premature to make an announcement before Congress creates the new department. A corollary is that Ridge wants to make sure that his former Capitol Hill colleagues (he served six terms in the House before becoming Pennsylvania governor) don't make a hash out of the President's proposal before he commits to take the top job.
Washington being Washington, however, there's plenty of Beltway and White House whispering about scenarios in which Ridge would be denied the job. If he doesn't become the first Homeland Security Secretary, it will be for one of two reasons. The big one is that he has taken a lot of heat from Beltway pundits and ribbing from late-night comics. His colored-coded risk charts have been the butt of stinging barbs from TV jokesters.
More seriously, some Republicans privately consider Ridge a disappointment as the security czar. He falls short of the commanding presence of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell, they argue. And he hasn't been consistently successful in the internal power struggles at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"BRIDGE BUILDER." The other reason Ridge might not get the job: He may not want it. His family still lives in Harrisburg, and the plain-spoken consensus-builder remains quite popular in the Keystone State. He might decide he doesn't have the appetite to fight bureaucratic wars on the Potomac -- an unpleasant chore in a war against terrorism that has been a large part of his job description and will likely remain so. Some say he's stung by some of the over-the-top criticism.
Still, Ridge is the logical choice. The Vietnam Vet has the confidence of Bush and most on Capitol Hill. Even curmudgeonly Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who has criticized Bush for refusing to allow Ridge to testify on homeland-security issues, has asked the President to pick the ex-governor to head the new department. Ridge "is extremely good as a bridge builder," says Michele Flournoy, senior adviser to the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
So what if Ridge drops out of the picture? Bush would look for someone tough and commanding, with a proven track record of dealing with stubborn, turf-conscious bureaucracies. And above all, someone loyal to the President.
OTHER CONTENDERS. Here are the rumored candidates you can dismiss. Outgoing General Electric CEO Jack Welch: Not gonna happen. He's able, all right, and plenty tough. But the White House won't want to deal with questions about his personal life. And you can count out former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Sure, he'd be a publicity-generating machine. But Rudy's world revolves around Rudy. His selection would be too much of a distraction for the all-Bush, all-the-time folks in the Administration. What's more, the ex-mayor is making a bushel of money for the first time in his life.
A more realistic option: Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Joe Allbaugh. His job as an independent agency head will disappear when the new Cabinet department is created. He's a proven Bush loyalist, a former chief of staff to Governor Bush and 2000 campaign manager for Candidate Bush. He has gotten tip-top marks as an emergency manager. And the Oklahoman with the flat top looks the part. If he doesn't get the Cabinet job, look for Allbaugh to replace Ridge as Bush's White House anti-terrorism adviser.
If Bush wants somebody from the business community, a good bet is Norm Augustine, longtime CEO of Lockheed Martin. Augustine is considered one of the top corporate minds in America and was a contender for the Pentagon post that went to Rumsfeld. He's respected across party lines and is an expert on security issues.
PARTYLINE BREAKERS. If political credentials are important, former New Hampshire Senator Warren Rudman could be the person. Rudman, a Republican and a former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, teamed up with former Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) a few years ago to head a blue-ribbon panel on homeland security that produced a blueprint for a new agency very much like Bush's final plan. Rudman is tough and bipartisan. A potential catch: As a backer of Bush rival John McCain, Rudman earned the ire of social conservatives during the 2000 campaign for his criticism of Religious Right leaders.
Longshots include a couple of Democrats: former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, who took a chaotic White House flow chart and made sense out of it, and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton (Ind.), a member of President Bush's homeland-security advisory committee. But Panetta, who has headed the House Budget Committee and the White House Office of Management & Budget, has a reputation for sharp partisanship. And Hamilton is a low-key intellectual, not a head-banger.
Of course, the rampant speculation could disappear in an instant if Bush goes with Ridge. That would be logical. But it would ruin the fun in Washington. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online