- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Tom Ridge may end up a media star yet. Despite nine months of querulous press reviews, indifferent poll numbers and frustrating moments before cameras and Congress, Mr. Ridge is under consideration for a plum role.

A Time magazine spokeswoman confirmed a report in Media Industry Newsletter that the White House's homeland security chief is the current front-runner for Person of the Year.

Time's designation is awarded with much ado in December and has gone since 1938 to the person who has most affected events of the year, for better or worse.

The newsletter's editor, Steve Cohn, queries Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly four times a year for interim reports, gauging the heft of newsmakers based on emerging events.

"We're calling Ridge the 'person of the midyear.' It's a preliminary choice, but Ridge has become a symbol and the public face of homeland security," Mr. Cohn said. "He has a rock-solid reputation, no really serious enemies and no Halliburton following him around."

In March, the choice had been Ariel Sharon. But things change.

"While Ridge is likely to be a major newsmaker during the second half, what with the terrorism threat ongoing, much will happen that will influence Kelly's ultimate selection (Rudy Giuliani was on nobody's list at this stage last year)," Mr. Cohn wrote.

Should the Department of Homeland Security become a reality, Mr. Ridge will have a consistent forum for his message, Mr. Cohn said. Combined with a national preoccupation with terrorism, he'll have a ready audience.

"Ridge is not necessarily Person of the Year," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "But his face clearly belongs with the story of the year: America's war on terrorism."

It was not always thus. After September 11, both press and public had high expectations for Mr. Ridge, whose message was sometimes a work in progress. On several occasions, he was left to announce amorphous terror alerts that lacked details. Late-night comedians reveled in the color-coded alert system that followed.

And while Mr. Ridge never received bad poll numbers, nor did he register on the applause meter like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Fox News surveys taken this year consistently gave Mr. Ridge a 48 percent approval rating, although 43 percent of respondents said they didn't know who Mr. Ridge was. Also, 78 percent said they did not understand the terror alert system.

Mr. Ridge has been dogged by press reports claiming he "lacked clout" or was "ineffective," a description driven home after former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta told a Senate Committee earlier this year that Mr. Ridge was "ill-equipped" for his position.

"Confidence in the office and Tom Ridge, its chief is weak. A rising Washington chorus sees his office as a public relations tool with little clout in key turf battles," the Christian Science Monitor said.

Yet Mr. Ridge remained a calm and modest model of civility. "I'm not authorized to be frustrated. I am authorized to be patient and persistent," he told reporters in May.

And his message is still the same.

"I have no expectations other than continuing to work as assistant to the president for homeland security and head of the transition team," Mr. Ridge told NBC yesterday.

Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected]washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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