Being 'Most Mentioned'

Clearly George W. Bush finds Pennsylvania's Gov. Tom Ridge congenial company. "Two minds with but a single thought, two hearts that beat as one," is perhaps how Bush puts it when waxing poetic. Ridge, 54, a solidly assembled 6 feet 2 inches, radiates executive energy. Like Bush, he is confident, upbeat, relaxed, humorous, conservative (six tax cuts in six years) and a practitioner of what he calls "limited but activist government." Unlike Bush, Ridge is a fluent extemporaneous speaker: his sentences parse and form paragraphs. He has a knack for pithy dispraise of Al Gore. Ridge calls Gore "Dr. Dark" who, had he been at Philadelphia in July 1776, would have denounced the Declaration of Independence as a "risky scheme."

However, Ridge is learning that being the most mentioned contender in the Republican vice-presidential sweepstakes is not all beer and skittles.

National Review, the biweekly encyclical from the church of conservatism, recently excommunicated Ridge in an article by John J. Miller, who called Ridge a "liberal Republican." Some of Ridge's congressional votes between 1983 and 1994 can perhaps be explained as the price he paid for representing an industrial district with a strong union presence. For example, in 1987 Ridge was one of just 17 Republicans who supported a Dick Gephardt protectionist measure calling for tariffs and import quotas against nations with "unfair" trade policies.

But constituency pressures cannot explain Ridge's votes to cut spending for defense against ballistic missiles, to kill the MX missile and aid to Nicaragua's contras, and to ban nuclear tests above 1 kiloton. He even voted for an egregiously silly gesture beloved by the left, a resolution calling for a "nuclear freeze."

Ridge, a working-class boy from an Erie public-housing project, was the only college graduate (Harvard) in his infantry company and he won a Bronze Star for "exceptionally valorous actions" in Vietnam. Having his dedication to defense questioned by Miller got Ridge's dander up and he gave The New York Times a wide-ranging interview, which carried the unhelpful headline, gov. Ridge derides critics on religious right. And until Wednesday last week he stoutly, and sincerely, denied having supported the nuclear freeze.

When, that morning, he was informed of his May 4, 1983, vote, he said, believably, that he had no recollection of why he had supported it. The next day, when shown his May 11, 1983, statement to the House applauding the freeze resolution, his staff gamely noted that 59 other Republicans voted for it, that it was much improved by various amendments, and so on.

Knowing that his memory could be wrong, Ridge had held back from publicly denying the freeze vote, pending a thorough combing of his record by his staff. His staff failed him by failing to find the vote. He explains, or surmises, that some of his votes against expensive weapons (e.g., the B-2 bomber) reflected an infantryman's belief that military basics were being sacrificed for exotics.

Ridge's voting record on defense issues, although unsettling and not justified by his Bronze Star, is somewhat ancient, and he can cite changed strategic circumstances for now getting in step with Bush's support for ballistic-missile defenses. But this episode illustrates how hard it always is to find a running mate who has a public record that is both substantial and free from episodes that will generate distracting controversies which will slow the ticket's momentum just as the postconvention campaign begins.

And there is the high-voltage issue of abortion. Interestingly, the pro-life convictions of Ridge's predecessor contributed to Ridge's election as governor. Last Tuesday former governor Bob Casey, a passionately pro-life Democrat, died. (Democrats, believers in "diversity" in everything but thought, would not let him address his anti-abortion views at their 1992 convention.) Only after Casey's lieutenant governor was elected did he reveal to a chagrined Casey that he was pro-choice. When the lieutenant governor ran for governor in 1994, Casey's conspicuous chilliness toward him helped Ridge win.

Ridge, who was an altar boy at 6 a.m. masses, and whose two children (both adopted) attend parochial schools, is a serious Catholic who believes that Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie is only doing his job when he says public officials whose policies are opposed to church teachings will not be featured participants at church events. A substantial portion of America's Catholics favor abortion rights. But a pro-choice Catholic running mate would guarantee a controversy. And if, as seems likely, this is going to be a low-turnout election, is it wise for Bush to begin by annoying part of his base?

Still, Bush could conclude that Ridge, with his compelling biography and proven ability to draw Democratic support, would be worth it. In 1982, a recession year, Ridge narrowly (729 votes) won an open House seat in a district with more Democrats than Republicans, and he held it easily until winning the governorship in 1994. Suppose Gore's latest synthetic persona—last week he became a little ray of sunshine—is not durable. Suppose he reverts to "Dr. Dark." Then Ridge's pugnacious optimism would strike the contrast Bush would want. And Bush certainly wants Ridge's state.

Pennsylvania, Ridge likes to say, was the birthplace of the American Revolution and, particularly in Pittsburgh, was the cradle of America's industrial revolution. In 1960 Pennsylvania, like California, had 32 electoral votes. Today, California has 54, Pennsylvania only 23, but that is the fifth-largest total. Pennsylvania has produced only one vice president (Polk's—George Mifflin Dallas) and one president, the awful James Buchanan. Ridge's attractive candor causes him to say that he thinks Bush can carry Pennsylvania without him on the ticket.

Because Republicans are optimistic about this November and instinctively hierarchical, they think their 2000 vice-presidential nominee is apt to be their 2008 presidential nominee. Hence the intensity of the scrutiny of Ridge, which is the price he pays for being "most mentioned."