The Sheriff

by Michelle Cottle | March 31, 2010

For the better part of an hour, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been kicked back in the front cabin of Coast Guard One, the small but handsomely appointed plane on which she travels, chatting easily about the challenges of running the third-largest Cabinet department. En route back to Washington after three days of nonstop meetings in Mexico City--a whirlwind visit made more challenging by the fact that Napolitano broke her right ankle playing tennis last month and is still hobbling around on crutches--the secretary is in wind-down mode. The conference calls and briefing books have been dealt with. Her lunch has been cleared away, her legs are tucked beneath a bright blue blanket, and her voice is as low and soothing as the hum of the jet engines. Which makes it all the more startling when, asked if she’d like to run for office once her current job ends, Napolitano abruptly thonks her head down on the glossy wooden tabletop in front of her and exclaims, “Don’t ask me that question!” When I persist, she looks up with a grin and informs me that, having just celebrated her first anniversary at the department, there is no way she’s going to touch the question of what’s next. Briskly turning the tables, she asks what I plan to do once my current job ends.

Few doubt that the hard-charging former Arizona governor, long considered a rising Democratic star, has ambitions beyond the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Some of her colleagues joke that, having grown up in New Mexico, she’ll shoot to become the first person to serve as governor of two different states. More seriously, Napolitano has toyed, from time to time, with the idea of running for Senate. Then again, attorney general was her first pick of administration posts; if things keep going south for the beleaguered Eric Holder, perhaps she could slide into his seat. Napolitano was also said to be on the Supreme Court short list last year. (One White House insider’s first comment to me about the secretary was that Obama would have loved to nominate her if she hadn’t been so badly needed where she is.) Going forward, if Obama decided to seek a nominee with political chops, Napolitano would be a prime contender. Then there’s the presidential thing: While her single-gal status might complicate matters, she has for years been among the first mentioned whenever speculation arises about who will become our first Madame President. Not that Napolitano is commenting. Quizzed on her White House ambitions for the 2009 book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, she demurred. “I mean people mention it now, obviously, because of my resumé,” Napolitano told author Anne Kornblut, with “a twinkle in her eye.” “But my view is, do a good job on this job, and then see what happens.”

And therein lies the rub. Because, for all of Napolitano’s vaunted assets, she may have the worst job in Washington--one where keeping the public safe is only part of the battle and where even minor missteps can prove professionally calamitous. Case in point: If Americans know anything about the secretary, it is likely from her moment of notoriety surrounding the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253. In the wake of the incident, Napolitano, attempting to calm holiday travelers, clumsily asserted that “the system worked.” The political chattering class leapt on her with both feet. Rushing to walk back her remarks, Napolitano insisted she’d been referring only to the part of “the system” that kicked in after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab made his move. But it was too late. The ferocity of the storm, in which the secretary was painted from coast to coast as a total imbecile, caught Napolitano off guard.

It shouldn’t have. Americans may love to gripe about the inconveniences created by DHS, but we damn sure know where to point the finger if anything even comes close to going boom. The irony is that much of what people think of as securing the homeland--gathering intel, compiling watch lists, issuing visas--is not handled by Napolitano’s troops. Moreover, counterterrorism is only a small fraction of DHS’s mandate. A large chunk of its resources are devoted instead to activities that are at most tangentially related to terrorism, such as immigration control, drug interdiction, and natural disaster relief. Thus, Napolitano’s already fraught job is made all the more challenging by the gulf between the public’s perception of her responsibilities and the rather different reality of her portfolio. Throw in the growing pains of an ill-defined department still struggling to unify 22 agencies, a sadistic oversight arrangement subjecting DHS to the whims of 80-plus congressional committees and subcommittees, and an out-of-power GOP desperate to reclaim the issue of homeland security as its own, and you begin to see why the mission facing Napolitano isn’t just thankless. It may be downright impossible.

 

Although born in New York City, the 52-year-old Napolitano says she’s a Westerner at heart. Save for a couple of early years spent in Pittsburgh, Janet and her two siblings were raised in Albuquerque, where their dad was a dean of the University of New Mexico medical school. A brainy, competitive striver, Napolitano studied political science at Santa Clara University, where she was the school’s first female valedictorian. She hit the national stage in 1991 when, as a partner in an Arizona law firm, she signed on to help represent Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Napolitano’s involvement in the spectacle spurred Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman to declare her a political comer. Two years later, President Clinton appointed her U.S. attorney in Arizona.

It was during Napolitano’s prosecutorial days that her tough-gal image took root. As U.S. attorney, she handled a couple of high-profile domestic-terrorism cases, including one tied to the Oklahoma City bombing. Elected state attorney general in 1998, she became an aggressive advocate of the death penalty, even defending Arizona’s use of it before the Supreme Court. (She lost.) As governor--she was elected in 2002 in what the local press characterized as “one of the tightest and ugliest races for governor in memory”--she was the state’s first chief executive to call up the National Guard to control illegal immigration along Arizona’s southern border.

Napolitano’s personal history fed this reputation as well. In her younger years, she was an avid mountain climber who scaled Mount Kilimanjaro. More daunting still, diagnosed with breast cancer, Napolitano underwent a mastectomy just three weeks before she was scheduled to address the 2000 Democratic National Convention. She later recalled that the pain was so intense she could barely stand. But she delivered the speech as planned. “Janet is one tough lady,” says White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan.

The secretary clearly takes pride in having answered the can-she-hang-with-the-big-boys question faced by so many women pols. On our way to Mexico, she spun tales of some of her diplomatic adventures, including the annual dinners attended by the four U.S. and six Mexican border-state governors. She reminisced about one year when the U.S. participants were Texas’s Rick Perry, California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, New Mexico’s Bill Richardson--all machismo-heavy alpha males--and herself. Napolitano’s wry smile indicates she is highly entertained by the memory. More fun still seems to have been the two-day group horseback rides across Sonora (the Mexican state that borders Arizona) she went on with Governor Eduardo Bours and his wife. Photos from the rides hang not far from a large saddle in the secretary’s lowceilinged office at the run-down Nebraska Avenue Complex (a.k.a. the NAC), where much of DHS is being housed until a permanent HQ is complete.

Napolitano’s inner circle seems to delight in the boss’s image. (One aide affectionately refers to her as “the sheriff,” as in “don’t fuck with the sheriff.”) And the office culture carries a slight whiff of the boys’ club. Around the NAC, the atmosphere is all business; on the road, there’s more of a work-hard, play-hard camaraderie--marathon cigar-and-bull sessions with Mexican colleagues, late-night dips in the Persian Gulf. Hearing tales of her troops’ antics, the secretary smiles indulgently and perhaps a bit nostalgically. Napolitano has been known to close down a bar or two in her time, but nowadays, she contents herself with quizzing younger staffers about their after-hours exploits.

Toughness aside, Napolitano doesn’t cut a particularly formidable figure. Short and slightly boxy, she sports a smooth cap of gray-flecked dark hair with a prominent white thatch in front. While she can come across as somber or even inert on television, in person, she is an animated talker, and, every now and then, she’ll flash what may be the single goofiest grin in Washington. She cannot bear to be idle: When she travels, if there is even a small gap between events, the secretary, an art geek, herds her staff and security detail to the nearest museum. And she remains committed to her regular tennis matches, even if the bum ankle has them on hold. (Post-injury, Napolitano requested the doc wrap her cast in alternating orange and purple bandages in honor of her beloved Phoenix Suns. “He looked at me like I was crazy,” she says.)

The DHS chief craves forward motion in her work as well. Asked what frustrates Napolitano, friend and fellow Cabinet member Kathleen Sebelius says, “I think there’s sometimes an impatience about the pace.” This get-’er-done style is appreciated by Napolitano’s boss. There are “exactly two reasons” Obama and Napolitano click, says White House deputy chief of staff Jim Messina. First, the secretary “fits exactly” into the culture of No Drama Obama. “She doesn’t highlight herself. What he wanted was competent administrators to fix this government, and she’s kind of the star of that.” Reason two: “He doesn’t like B.S., and she’s not a B.S. person.”

That said, Napolitano’s experience playing politics is one of her assets. As a Democratic governor dealing with a Republican legislature, she had to learn how to work with everyone. This skill is vital at DHS, which has more onerous oversight requirements than other departments, with multiple subcommittees prone to demand reports or hearings on whatever subject strikes their fancy. Even Hill Republicans (on background) say Napolitano and her people have been good about outreach. Aiding matters, Republicans see her as politically reasonable and tend to blame the White House rather than DHS for decisions they find unpalatable.

White House bigwigs will give you a laundry list of reasons beyond political savvy that Napolitano was tapped for the job--administrative competence, legal acumen, loyalty, and so on. Notably absent from the list, as Napolitano’s critics have been happy to point out, is significant counterterrorism experience. Both the secretary and the White House insist that, with a mandate as broad as DHS’s, no one could have expertise in every area. But some insiders observe that, coming in, the Obama team was looking to shift, or at least broaden, the department’s focus. Obama transition advisers Clark Ervin and Richard Clarke note that the administration wanted to reorient DHS away from the strict law-enforcement mentality of the Bushies. “There was a sense the Bush administration overplayed its hand” with the counterterrorism focus, says Ervin, who oversaw the DHS transition, and that the new regime should “take a more sober tone and put it in perspective.”

The White House, unsurprisingly, isn’t eager to engage on the subject. But

the major projects Napolitano was asked to tackle early on were immigration reform and border violence, with H1N1 occasionally grabbing the spotlight. By necessity, much of her time also goes toward “nuts-and-bolts logistical issues,” she says, explaining that, eight years in, DHS is still laboring to rationalize such basics as personnel and procurement policies, not to mention build a functioning infrastructure. (It wasn’t until Napolitano’s tenure that the e-mail system was upgraded to enable a message from the secretary’s office to go out to the whole department.) With so much going on, small wonder it took the Christmas near-miss to re-center everyone’s attention on terrorism, says Ervin.

For now, at least, terrorism has the secretary’s full attention. In recent weeks, she has been circling the globe urging other nations to commit to improving their aviation security standards. While out West for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics, she delivered a big cybersecurity speech in San Francisco. By contrast, even as DHS was heavily involved in the relief efforts in Haiti, Napolitano did not play a high-profile role because the situation didn’t directly involve U.S. security.

 

Which brings usto the formidable p.r. challenge Napolitano faces--both for herself and her department. Sitting atop what some aides jokingly refer to as the Department of Plague and Pestilence, Napolitano is the point person for almost every imaginable disaster to menace the American people: not just jihadists, but hurricanes, floods, fires, mudslides, illegal immigration, drug trafficking, human trafficking, gun smuggling, and swine flu. At the same time, she is often pushed to address security-related developments over which she has no influence (such as where to try the September 11 conspirators). “Pretty much everything’s going to be your problem,” says her friend and predecessor Michael Chertoff, who recalls being constantly called to the White House during his four years. “Once, I came into a meeting on some topic, and the president looked at me and said, ‘You’re here again!’” Even if the secretary is vigilant and lucky enough to avoid a catastrophe on her watch, the country cannot help but associate her with bad news. As one White House insider puts it, DHS doesn’t have a lot of positive achievements to peddle: “If you’re seeing and hearing that department, it’s because there’s a problem somewhere.”

But Napolitano is determined to avoid being known merely as Calamity Janet. She doesn’t just want to push incident-specific information out to the public; she wants to let people know that, contrary to what its name suggests, DHS is not--and can never be--wholly responsible for keeping the country safe. Rather, the broad-based homeland security “enterprise,” as she terms it, relies on legions of state and local officials, federal agencies beyond DHS control--and individual Americans.

Napolitano’s goal is a worthy one, says Chertoff: “The mantra of anybody in emergency management has always been that individual preparedness is the cornerstone of resilience and response.” Unfortunately, it is human nature to put off the hard work of addressing such unpleasantness. Chertoff, for instance, considers it nuts that schools spend so much time getting kids revved up about recycling but don’t bother to teach the need for basic disaster preparedness. Instead, Chertoff says, when disaster strikes, “people suddenly want the government to show up and protect them.” The message that this expectation is unrealistic and even dangerous is a tough sell--and nearly impossible to convey without sounding like you’re making excuses for non-performance.

As the “system-worked” brouhaha vividly demonstrated, striking the proper balance between educating people and spinning them is among Napolitano’s trickiest duties. Yet it is not clear that she fully appreciates the precariousness of her situation even now. Asked if it’s unnerving to be the public face of safety and security, she deflects: “I know there’s a really bad picture of me in every airport. That’s a little weird.” When pressed on whether she is becoming hyper-cautious about her utterances lest she cause mass panic or, alternatively, fail to convey the urgency of a situation, she sits quietly for several seconds before dismissing the idea. “Not in that sense, no. Yes, in the sense that the press and the Internet bloggers parse our words. There’s a media environment in Washington, D.C., that’s much more endemic than even when you’re running a state.” She then assures me with a laugh, “It hasn’t really caused me to change my behavior.”

 

As Coast Guard Onespeeds east, Napolitano sits reading quietly. Looking to decompress, the secretary has cranked up her iPod and cracked open a new book. But just a few pages into Impeached, David O. Stewart’s account of President Andrew Johnson’s bloody battles with Congress, Napolitano starts chuckling. Listen to this, she instructs two aides and me: “Once, told that an assassin awaited him at a public meeting, Johnson started his speech by placing a pistol before him. After describing the threat, Johnson roared out, ‘I do not say to him, “Let him speak,” but “let him shoot!”’ After long seconds of silence, Johnson remarked with satisfaction, ‘It appears I have been misinformed.’"

The secretary is obviously tickled by the gumption of our seventeenth president: No cowering. No dithering. Just plop the gun down and call the bastard out. This is just the sort of grit with which Napolitano has confronted myriad challenges over the years. But she’s never grappled with anything quite like DHS before. And this time, all the grit in the world may not save her from ending up as political roadkill--even if she and her absurdly unwieldy department do, somehow, manage to keep the rest of us alive.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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