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Napolitano flavors the administration

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David Broder
January 1, 2010
— Most Americans got their first prolonged look at Janet Napolitano, the secretary of Homeland Security, last weekend. After a passenger on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam ignited a concealed fuse as the plane approached Detroit for a landing, apparently intending to blow it up and kill all aboard, it fell to Napolitano to take charge of the federal response.

It came as no surprise to anyone who knows her that Napolitano handled the incident and its aftermath with aplomb. In the years I have known her, she has managed every challenge that has come her way with the same calm command that she showed in this instance. If there is anyone in the administration who embodies President Obama’s preference for quiet competence with “no drama,” it is Janet Napolitano.


I watched as she made the rounds of the morning interview programs Sunday, laying out what she knew about the would-be terrorist and carefully refusing to speculate about the many matters that were still being investigated. She is being criticized for saying “the system worked,” but her part of the response system did work.


It must have been a frantic time for her. She was in San Francisco, far from her Washington office, and she must have had a sleepless night. But her eyes were bright and her voice was calm. Everything appeared to be completely normal, except that her usual sense of humor was absent, as it should have been, given the circumstances.


I flashed back to the first time I had met her. A good friend from the staff of the late Rep. Morris K. “Mo” Udall had gone to work for Napolitano. On a reporting trip to Arizona, I called the staffer and she suggested meeting Napolitano for lunch in Phoenix.


Napolitano was involved in a primary race for governor, and she picked a neighborhood Mexican restaurant where the warmth of the greeting she received made it clear she had been there many times before. We talked about her campaign and, more generally, about Western state politics.


It was evident from that first conversation that Napolitano had a firm view of herself and the course she had staked out. Her primary opponent was running to her left, but Napolitano understood that her credentials as a law-and-order former U.S. attorney for Arizona, appointed by President Clinton, were more important to her chances of winning the governorship of Barry Goldwater’s and John McCain’s home state than any checklist of liberal positions.


Her instinct was to run down the center, and she was confident enough of her positions so that she did not agonize over them. What struck me most forcibly at that first meeting was her lack of guardedness. We quickly found ourselves talking as if we had known each other for years, and her comments were as candid as they were shrewd.


She soon became one of my favorite pols in either party. I saw her mainly at the semi-annual meetings of the National Governors Association, where she won a warm welcome on both sides, and occasionally on reporting trips to Arizona.


In 2008, ensconced in her second term as governor, her endorsement was sought by all the Democrats running for president. Bill and Hillary Clinton had powerful supporters in Arizona, especially in the Latino community. But I knew from our conversations that Napolitano had substantial doubts whether the senator from New York, with her conventionally liberal positions, could defeat McCain—whose independence Napolitano always respected.


Napolitano had been much slower than Obama was in coming to doubt the war in Iraq, but it really was no surprise when she gave an early endorsement to the young senator from Illinois. His trust in her was deepened when she took on the assignment of drafting the platform for passage at the Democratic National Convention—a potentially tricky chore that she pulled off without a bobble.


The Obama Cabinet is filled with talents, but many of the stars are of an age or temperament unlikely to turn them into successor candidates. Napolitano will face many substantive tests—not just in dealing with terrorism but in playing an important role in immigration reform—before she is a candidate for anything. But her potential is almost unlimited.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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