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Expect to see more of Ridge, even after 2002

Saturday, August 12, 2000

In 1956, when a dithery man named Adlai Stevenson had secured, for the second time, the privilege of being humiliated at the polls by Dwight Eisenhower, he could not decide whom to drag with him to defeat.

Stevenson, the Democratic nomination in hand, laid the question at the feet of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It was then that a young war hero from a northeastern state organized his staff and fought a battle that put his name before a national audience. The nomination for vice president went to Estes Kefauver, a senator from Tennessee. Four years after the Stevenson-Kefauver ticket qualified for future inclusion as a big-money question in television game shows, the man who was not chosen vice president, John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, became president.

I raise this bit of paleo-Democratic anthropology because, as Democrats prepare an assault on the vegetarian restaurants of Los Angeles, the curiosity that is Tom Ridge, Republican, continues to gnaw at me.

For a man who purports to have taken himself out of consideration on Independence Day weekend, Ridge seemed to run awfully hard for a job he wasn't after.

It is useless to put such a proposition to Ridge. On one meeting, I opted, instead, to test him by asking the square root of seven. He left annoyed. When I climbed into Ridge's GMC SUV in Philadelphia last week, he interrupted my first attempt at a question:

"First things first," he said. "2.645751311. I rounded it off after that."

It is hard to imagine to what use Ridge will put this newfound knowledge, but his inability to leave even the most trivial task uncompleted speaks volumes about why the world will yet hear from him.

Any pretension Ridge had about being the running mate for George W. Bush was met hard by suggestions that Ridge's record as a congressman from Erie is evidence that he is a secret liberal who, perhaps, keeps an old Nehru jacket in his closet next to a black light poster.

Ridge, of course, represented a district where organized labor is strong and in which many a Democratic Party registration record resides in the same wallet as an NRA membership card. It is, in short, a pretty good crosssection of the American populace -- precisely the kind of district no congressman truly wants.

"In the House of Representatives, everybody wants a safe seat," Ridge explained. "It's much more homogenous in the terms of the constituents you represent." That Ridge got a heterogeneous seat and was able to keep it explains why he was later able to become governor of that American microcosm called Pennsylvania. It also tells me that, misgivings of the Republican Party's Army of God faction aside, Ridge could run for president and win.

"I plan a lot, but I don't plan eight years down the road," he protested.

That is true. But as Louis Pasteur once pointed out, chance visits a prepared mind. Ridge's experience as governor is likely to mean far more than his experience as a congressman, and while governors are graded on the overall condition of their states, congressional voting records can become the very mud enemies hurl at a man.

Consider Ridge's vote on the Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted against the most expensive version and was tagged "a dove" on defense by conservative opponents this year.

"A dove? Please," he groaned. "The fact that I voted for the second-highest amount and not the highest amount for SDI somehow made me a dove?"

That kind of problem recedes with time, especially with test rockets missing barn doors.

"The further and further you get away from the times and the context in which they occurred, the less and less relevant they become," Ridge said.

In the meantime, he will likely continue to thump the tub, or tacitly allow it to be thumped on his behalf. Ridge leaves office in 2002. The public vetting process for the vice presidency has served him in many ways. His name is known. His face is vaguely familiar. He knows the square root of seven. He has also gained a rough calculation of the political map in the coming years. Expect him to travel it.

Last week's column contained an error in fact which must be corrected. I spoke of the irony of George W. Bush invoking the language of civil rights when his father, George H.W. Bush, voted against the Civil Rights Act as a congressman in 1964. Rob Keenan, a devout Republican from Mt. Lebanon, telephoned to point out that the elder Bush did not enter Congress until 1966. So what was I thinking of?

A check of the record shows that the elder Bush ran for Senate in Texas in 1964, campaigned as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act and repeatedly referred to Martin Luther King Jr. as "a militant." In fairness, Keenan also pointed out that, once ensconced in Congress, the elder Bush voted in favor of the Open Housing Act.

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