The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege … And How We Can Be Safe Again by Tom Ridge

Much of what MSNBC host Rachel Maddow called “the hullabaloo” about Tom Ridge’s book, The Test of Our Times, has centered around a single passage of his memoir, wherein he wonders at the possible political motivations of various Bush administration officials who urged him to raise the national threat level just before the 2004 election. Could they, he wonders at the time, be trying to score points for the president? To which many of us will respond, “Ya think?”

But the rain shower of controversy over this passage, taken for a storm, threatens to obscure what’s interesting and valuable about Ridge’s memoir. Some books succeed by virtue of their historical and popular context, and this, thanks to Ridge’s involvement in the monumental decisions of the Bush administration, is one of them. Though maddeningly digressive and sporadically optimistic in pale, jingoistic language, Test of Our Times will be seen as one of the first thorough and contemporary examinations of America’s confrontation with its own relative ignorance of extremist Islam. Though it ought to have been otherwise, the country’s awareness of terrorist threats at home was dismally lacking in 2001, and Ridge’s book is an at times startling reminder as he documents the struggle to round up and motivate diverse and dissenting government agencies. The results of his tenure, though encouraging, are tinged with regret and frustration.

Ridge: What You Don’t Know

Like the department he oversaw from 2002 to late 2004, Ridge is a mansion of many rooms. Vietnam War veteran, former governor of Pennsylvania, husband and father, he comes across as a complex man, even where the memoir doesn’t intend it. Determinedly apolitical, refreshingly willing to shoulder responsibility, folksy, even charming, Ridge is the good soldier dangerously close to living by blind faith in his superior officers, a man whose systematic methodology does not always translate well with the public and often risks oversimplification which obscures, not clarifies. Think only of the color-coded national threat level, or HSAS, and you’ll understand.

Test of Our Times begins on 11 September 2001, with Ridge responding to the crisis and tragedy of downed United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. His love of his home state is obvious and affecting in this early chapter, and one of the positives of his memoir is that he, essentially, was like most of America on that day: caught off guard, shamefully ignorant of Muslim culture and beliefs, and eager to do something. Many of us can identify with Ridge when he notes that he “had been the product of a good, if ethnocentric, education… I had never been inside a mosque”. But, we have to ask, wonderful as it is that we can identify with our narrator’s journey, was he the best choice for Assistant to the President for Homeland Security?

The perception has been that Ridge was in over his head when he took on what would eventually become the cabinet position of Secretary of Homeland Security, and the memoir would seemingly support that. Ridge goes to Washington not unlike Jimmy Stewart, and the result is much the same except there is no Joseph Paine who breaks down in a fit of suicidal confession, heralding truth and a happy ending. Instead, underlings are sacrificed, Ridge is ridiculed for his duct-tape solutions, and the Department of Defense continues to act like a star high-school quarterback. Ridge can barely find paper for the photocopier.

Through it all, Ridge neuters his own political stances and affiliations, seeing himself as “a former congressman known, I believed, to be more interested in finding solutions than in scoring political points”, which would be all well and good if he didn’t admit in the next paragraph, “The president and I had long been friends” since 1984. Like George W. Bush, Ridge wants to come across as above politics, when the reality is that Ridge, a short-list vice-presidential consideration for both Bush and McCain, had been a successful politician for 20 years before he joined the White House. One begins to wonder if Ridge isn’t just another politician hiding behind gosh-darn aphorisms like “You don’t know what you don’t know”.

One also suspects that Ridge’s loyalty to Bush made him a prime candidate for the job, but to his credit, Ridge does offer some stinging indictments of the administration. Yet here the contradictions continue. Early on, Ridge seems awestruck by riding in a limousine with Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, and at times in the book, his optimism approaches a fawning tone, only to cringe — one pictures a schoolboy in an old-fashioned, wrought-iron desk too small for his body — when he’s easily manipulated, in August 2004, into inserting a line crediting “the president’s leadership” during a press briefing about the threat level.

Repeatedly he seems incredulous that the American populace could be suspicious of the intentions of those elected and appointed to higher office. Trust your government, Ridge practically pleads. And yet elsewhere in the book he condemns the “shameless character assassination” committed by Republican campaign ads which smeared and eventually defeated Max Cleland, a Democrat and war hero whose “votes against the creating the Department of Homeland Security,” says Ridge, “came back to haunt him.”

Such is the strange disconnect of a too-simple faith; it’s as if Ridge believes these tactics and stratagems, designed for personal advancement as much as party control, magically vanish once a person survives the campaign season. On one hand, he is capable of criticizing the president for his infamous you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us philosophy, typified by the inane reasoning that “if lawmakers were against this new electronic [surveillance] program” — an element of the Patriot Act — “they were also opposed to catching terrorists”. On the other hand, his feathers ruffled, Ridge says that “the suggestion… that the Bush administration cherry-picked the intelligence in order to go to war [is] contemptible and unworthy of comment”.

Forget for a moment the ideological concerns of the neo-conservative movement which did, in fact, “cherry-pick intelligence”; that they did so is a testament to their long-term outlook, not an annulment. But the very idea that a president, secretary of defense, or attorney general — many of whom fought bitterly contested campaigns, or benefited from such campaigns — would be capable of distorting the truth seems unimaginable to Ridge. The reader is inclined to shake him by the shoulders and say, “Tom, these are the same people.”

Ridge: Controversy

This is what makes the book so compelling and frustrating, and it explains the controversy of, and the impulse and back-pedaling behind, his “musings” about political pressure to raise the national threat level. In a chapter titled “The Politics of Terrorism, Part 1”, Ridge says:

Let me make this very clear. I was never directed to [change the threat level for political reasons] no matter how many analysts, pundits, or critics say so. Secondly, the threat advisory system approved in 2002 created a system that included cabinet members whose consensus drove the recommendation. No one, not even the president, can unilaterally alter the threat level.

Later, in “The Politics of Terrorism, Part 2”, Ridge and members of the intelligence community are weighing the impact of the Osama bin Laden videotape which emerged the Friday before the 2004 election day. “Ashcroft strongly urged an increase in the threat level, and was supported by Rumsfeld. There was absolutely no support for that position within our department. None. I wondered, ‘Is this about security or politics?’ Post-election analysis demonstrated a significant increase in the president’s approval rating in the days after the raising of the threat level.” Reflecting that there is no threat of a specific attack, and that all parties are on the same page, Ridge rightly considers “that something could be afoot other than simple concern about the country’s safety”.

But he is the good soldier, at least in his retelling of the events and, under pressure since the book’s release, his retelling of the retelling of the events. His defense goes like this: pressure may have been applied, or maybe it wasn’t, but the bottom line is that the national threat level, and by extension, any counterterrorism decision, was never influenced by politics. In the end, the explanation may not seem entirely credible, but neither does it seem particularly complicated. The problem with it — indeed, the problem of the book, and, one could argue, the problem of homeland security — is the vague taste of dissatisfaction it leaves in the mouth, the taste of too many questions left unanswered.

Ridge’s Verdict

Ridge left the Department of Homeland Security after the re-election of Bush, and the book glides neatly through this denouement. Ridge’s cordiality and admirable sense of responsibility for the successes and failings of the DHS cannot allow him to point too many fingers, though he saves considerable ire for FEMA and Michael Brown’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. What we’re left with, instead, are the lessons learned on the job.

The portrait Ridge paints of a government where “everyone wanted to take credit for keeping the country safe” but no one was willing to “sacrifice something, financial or otherwise” is troubling, and despite the modest improvements of Chertoff, this dilemma still faces the current secretary, Janet Napolitano. In the final chapters of his memoir, Ridge outlines his proposal for regional DHS offices and calls for reform in cyber security, the Coast Guard, and clean energy practices, and a better American understanding of and dialogue with the Muslim community — smart ideas all, but sketched, really, and coming a bit late in the game. One hopes, after reading Test of Our Times, that future czars of homeland security will informatively begin where Ridge has ended up intellectually after his trial by fire.

How odd, and yet appropriate, then, that one of the book’s most startling anecdotes is, in fact, a quote from another book, a text called Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Based on a study of Muslims conducted by Gallup between 2001 and 2007, the book, Ridge tells us, underscores what our future directors, secretaries, and presidents must understand, that they are working with a American population that, when asked “what they know about Muslims” responded frequently, “Nothing.”

RATING 6 / 10