ATLANTA - Tom Ridge never made it to the mountaintop. But if he stays lucky, Mr. Ridge may get out of the Homeland Security Department without seeing a terrorist strike on his watch.
It's not that his efforts were so stellar or the safeguards he put in place so effective. He has simply enjoyed good fortune.
President Bush has been lucky, too. Many voters were convinced that he has made the nation safer simply because U.S. territory has not been struck in three years. But that's hardly because of the president's persistence in fighting al-Qaida.
Mr. Bush has done little to change the conditions that allowed terrorists to take us by surprise on Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, the president's entire homeland security initiative has been infused with cynicism and partisan politics.
In the beginning, Mr. Bush didn't even want a Homeland Security Department. He fought it hard, until Karl Rove figured out that Democrats were gaining popular support in their efforts to get one started. Then, Mr. Bush flip-flopped and quickly put together legislation to create a department, but the bill was salted with minefields, including a provision that infuriated employee unions.
When Democrats fought the labor-bashing provision, the GOP accused them of stalling the creation of a homeland security post. Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, then a congressman, defeated incumbent Sen. Max Cleland by portraying him as unpatriotic; Mr. Cleland's opposition to the labor provision somehow got twisted into proof that Mr. Cleland opposed the homeland security act and also America.
And so it has gone, as Mr. Bush has portrayed himself as the nation's protector while doing very little to protect the nation. Airport security remains a nuisance with little value in keeping terrorists at bay.
Meanwhile, the seaports are wide open. Why would terrorists repeat the 9/11 tactic when they could send a nuclear weapon - a small nuke that could fit in a suitcase - into U.S. territory by ship to a sleeper cell awaiting its arrival? It would be easy enough, since only about 5 percent of the goods shipped into U.S. ports are inspected.
Moreover, first-responders - police officers, paramedics, firefighters - in major cities have been neglected. Instead of devoting money to big cities most likely to be attacked, Congress has divvied up the money as pork barrel, so that Wyoming has received $35 per resident in grants for homeland security, while Pennsylvania has received only $5.50. Lawmakers have treated funds for homeland security like Monopoly money.
Perhaps the most egregious example of politics over protection, however, was the Bush administration's response to proposals that chemical plants be required to institute stricter security to prevent sabotage by terrorists. After lobbyists for the chemical industry objected, the White House blocked congressional efforts to impose mandatory security improvements on chemical manufacturers. Apparently, the political support of the industry was more important than making sure terrorists cannot kill Americans by blowing up chemical plants in high-population areas.
Even if the White House took homeland security seriously, the United States might be struck again. There are so many Islamist fanatics willing to commit suicide to kill Americans that stopping every potential attack is tough indeed. But we might be able to reduce the casualty count if we secured the ports and chemical plants and shored up first-responders. The Bush administration isn't even trying. It's unlikely Mr. Ridge's successor will be able to change that.
Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.