Nobody in America makes me feel more insecure than Tom Ridge.
The man who is supposed to restore my confidence in the prospect of my safety gives me the uneasy sense that the door's unlocked, the alarm's off and there's a ladder leaning up against the house.
He seems like a pleasant, well-meaning guy and admits, "It's not always easy to know the right thing to say or the right thing to do."
But in George W. Bush's pulp Western, Ridge should be a square-jawed extra with no lines.
Last week, the head of Homeland Insecurity unveiled the big strategy he's been working on for nearly a year: a $1.2 million "ready campaign," a PR concoction complete with a "D'oh!" Web site. There are TV ads starring cute New York City firemen telling people to store water and get flashlights, and close-ups of Ridge spouting simple-minded axioms like "Have a good communications plan for your family."
The new campaign was developed with the help of focus groups convened by the Advertising Council.
George W. Bush has always mocked Washington's dependence on focus groups. Only last week, he derided mass European protests against the war, saying listening to the marchers would be like relying on focus groups to set foreign policy. (Millions of people marching in the streets of world capitals is not a sampling of opinion; it is opinion.) Bush leads a West Wing that thinks politically all the time. Andy Card talks about rolling out the war with Iraq like a marketing campaign, and now Ridge runs his agency according to the principles of consumer marketing. (And maybe fund raising, too. According to Al Kamen of The Washington Post, almost half the duct tape sold in the United States comes from a company whose founder gave more than $100,000 to Republicans in 2000.)
What can the Bush administration learn from a focus group of understandably confused Americans about making our borders and ports more secure? Do they have a preferred thickness of duct tape? Should they head straight to the bomb shelter or stop by Blockbuster first?
Peggy Conlon of the Ad Council told The New York Times' Lynette Clemetson that they asked focus group panels if it would be effective for Ridge to use celebrities to instruct the public on safety.
The group participants thankfully recoiled from that idea, knowing that they share little common ground with stars who already have "safe rooms" in their mansions stocked with Pellegrino, Dom and Botox and their "human shield" minions running around buying Prada emergency packs. The focus groupers also nixed a proposal to have Ridge's ad campaign advise Americans to "be a soldier in your own home."
They did not like to think about a terrorist attack in terms of war, Conlon said, but more as a disaster like a tornado or earthquake that they could weather.
Anyhow, that's just another way of saying, you're on your own, buddy, you're an army of one, be all that you can be in the short time that remains.
In encouraging people to be prepared, the ready.gov Web site notes that you may be in a "moving vehicle at the time of an attack. Know what you can do." How about keep moving? The site's drawing illustrating a radiation threat shows a map of Texas, with the radioactive arrow pointed to the vicinity of Crawford.
The Republicans are afraid that Democrats are going to get traction with the argument that the White House has shortchanged national security in its Ahab pursuit of Saddam.
An upcoming article in The New Republic, contending that the president has not done enough, cites an American Association of Port Authorities estimate that it would cost $2 billion to make the ports secure. But since Sept. 11, only $318 million has been spent. Although Bush himself endorsed a program to screen cargo at foreign ports, his budget provides no money for it.
What Ridge is supposed to be doing is getting the best scientific and technical expertise, as it relates to all threats, and developing concrete plans and suggestions for every possible contingency.
He's not supposed to be selling security, or spinning it; he's supposed to be providing it.
He doesn't need to make security more alluring to us. We already find it absolutely alluring. We'd just like to get some more of it.
2003 New York Times Syndicate