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
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
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
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.