Campaign 2000's Other Harvard Man
Tom Ridge '67 began his political career at Harvard. Now, he has a chance to snag the GOP's vice-presidential nomination
Thomas J. Ridge '67 has been a fish out of water for most of his life.
First as a blue-collar, non-Kennedy Catholic at Harvard; then as an enlisted soldier-law student in Vietnam; as a Republican Congressman from a mostly Democratic district and finally as a Republican governor in a mostly Democratic state.
And now, his name is mentioned in the sweepstakes for one of the most powerful positions in the United States--vice president--as an unabashedly pro-choice politician in a pro-life political party.
Ridge was born into a working class family from Erie, Pennsylvania. His mother was a ward committee member and a die-hard Republican. His father was a meat salesman and a staunch Democrat.
It was at home where Ridge was introduced to the political life and where he learned the art of moderation.
Family dinners introduced young Tom to impassioned political debate.
"The table was the center of the house. It's where Tom learned that no one has a stranglehold on good ideas," the governor's younger brother David told the Allentown Morning Call. As for his parent's divergent politics, David says, "Tom took a lot from both of them."
As their father worked extra hours selling shoes to send the children to parochial school, young Tom distinguished himself enough in high school to get accepted to Harvard with a need-based scholarship in 1963.
Cambridge, Mass would become Ridge's political proving ground.
Harvard in the 1960s was consumed by radical liberalism, the result of the extension of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. There was also the opposition, many members of which scoffed at the demonstrators' pretensions and lamented their anti-patriotism.
Between the two poles was a sizeable flotilla of moderate leftists, including intellectual students like the future Vice President Al Gore '69 who sympathized with the demonstrators but stayed in the dorm during protests.
An 18-year-old Ridge, too, kept himself above the fray.
He threw himself into sports, playing baseball, basketball and football his first year. He was also a member of the Crimson Key Society and of a philanthropic group known as Combined Charities, of which he served as House chair during his junior year.
He concentrated in government but he eschewed the "gov jock" stereotype that was pervasive even in the '60s.
"[Ridge] was a very normal guy, not someone who you could easily categorize as a jock or preppy or anything like that," says Quincy House contemporary Frank A. Orban III '66.
" He was very studious, quiet--really a very typical guy."
When he wasn't studying or sporting, Ridge was politicking--but locally.
As a first-year, Ridge was a low-key member of the Freshmen Council.
"He was not a controversial member [of the council] at a time when it was very easy to be one," says fellow student leader Richard C. Haskins '67. "He was certainly not one of those standing up on tables shouting down the administration."
Ridge continued his political activities into his upperclass years in Quincy House. At the time, the House had a more traditional character, with many of its residents playing sports and participating in political
Ridge fit in, joining the Quincy House Committee, where he served as secretary his senior year.
In addition, he joined the Undergraduate Council from Quincy.
From Pennsylvania to Peril
Serving as a staff sergeant from 1969 to 1970, Ridge was recognized for bravery, awarded the Bronze Star for Valor, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and the Combat Infantry Badge.
When he was discharged, he went on to earn a law degree and opened a practice in Pennsylvania.
In 1982, then an established prosecutor, Ridge decided to run for Congress.
Ridge was the first enlisted man who saw combat in Vietnam to be elected to the U.S. House. Though eager to use the war experience as leverage in his campaign, Ridge was less keen on highlighting his Harvard ties.
He won, as a moderate Republican in a working-class Democratic district.
In the House, Ridge supported minimum-wage laws, voted to cut national defense spending, and, most relevant to his vice presidential aspirations, consistently supported a women's right to an abortion. According to the Congressional Quarterly, an influential Washington weekly magazine, Ridge voted with President Reagan only 40 percent of the time.
Ridge was extremely popular in his district, winning re-election by large margins in 1990 and 1992. In 1994, Ridge was persuaded to run for Governor by state Republicans who were desperate to win the state's top office.
Swept along in the wave of the Republican Revolution, he won easily.
Ridge's popularity among Democrats and Republicans, his easiness with the media and his down-to-earth demeanor made him a national figure in the party. As a Catholic pro-choice governor of a northern state, Ridge, it was assumed, could help candidates gather key votes in Middle America's swing states--even those that were traditional Democratic strongholds.
In 1996, according to published reports, then Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) asked Ridge to be his running mate. Ridge declined.
Fast forward to 2000.
Ridge's name has been bandied about by the political cognoscenti for months. Moderates in the party have floated the idea of a Bush-Ridge ticket, hoping to convince conservatives that Ridge could lure Reagan Republicans back to the party.
To liberals, Ridge's background may seem like an excellent complement to Bush's.
While both attended Ivy League schools, Ridge earned scholarships to attend Harvard and worked summers as a construction worker to make tuition.
Unlike Bush's less-than-stellar record at Yale, Ridge earned honors in government here and was known as a serious student. Ridge was also highly decorated in Vietnam, while Bush served in the Texas National Guard, far from military action.
Bush will choose his running-mate sometime before late July's Republican convention in Philadelphia.
Though his name has been mentioned the most often of those angling for Bush's vice presidential spot, party conservatives have declared Ridge an unacceptable choice.
The two most influential organs of Republican opinion, the neo-conservative Weekly Standard and the traditionalist National Review, have prominently fronted articles labeling Ridge, in effect, a liberal Democrat in liberal Republican's clothing.
The National Review's writers have written that Ridge would alienate conservative Catholics. They note that, because of Ridge's avowed pro-choice positions, his own bishop refuses to let him attend church functions. Ridge's problem is that of John F. Kennedy's '40 in reverse--he is not Catholic enough.
But presidential campaigns move in cycles. Come July, the dynamics of Republican politics could well have changed.
So almost no one, including party conservatives, has written off Ridge's chances.
Gov. Bush visited Pennsylvania a few times during the primaries, staying at the Governor's mansion after several fundraising events.
According to The New York Times, Ridge and Bush were bunking at the governor's mansion in Harrisburg, Pa., watching televised sports and catching up on old times.
"He's been a friend of mine for a long time," Bush said of Ridge.
"It's a heck of a ride," Ridge told the Times. "I've already got a great job, and I'm going to help my old friend George Bush get elected president. And you know? I think he can carry Pennsylvania without me."
Ridge declined to be interviewed for this article through his press secretary, Time Reeves.
"Since the press has picked up on the vice presidential thing, we have been deluged with requests for interviews," Reeves says.