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Updated Sep 5, 2023, 6:27am EDT
politics

Remembering Bill Richardson

REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo
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Steve’s view

I didn’t start out liking Congressman Bill Richardson when I first crossed his path in 1995. I was working for a nerdy, earnest, “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” New Mexico politician, Senator Jeff Bingaman. Richardson, also from New Mexico, was a real standout in the House, a peripatetic member of the International Relations Committee. I recall some grumbling that New Mexicans didn’t understand the connections between his travel to Cuba, or the Balkans, North Korea, or Venezuela to their lives and needs. But the truth was that we were politically envious of him and the huge footprint he was building on the world stage. And that really did elevate New Mexico’s status, which it desperately needed.

The closet chatter among New Mexico’s then political set and some of their staffers, all unverified for the most part I should add, about Richardson when I worked in the Senate is that he was a tough boss — a bit of a“screamer,” sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as another difficult assignment of that era, Senator Dianne Feinstein. The jealous gossips in Santa Fe rolled their eyes at his patrician Massachusetts roots on his father’s side, and grumbled that this descendant of the Mayflower had leveraged his maternal Mexican lineage into a place atop their state’s politics. But Bill Richardson was a back slapper and worked the room better than anyone in the state, and he delivered a lot of resources and government dollars. He basically founded the SpacePort in New Mexico and was constantly putting deals together that brought in money from figures like Richard Branson.

I would find myself in rooms frequently with Congressman Richardson a lot because of the New Mexico crowd, but my loyalty to Bingaman always made me skeptical of him. That was, I later realized, a mistake. Richardson was hugely talented, moved important legislation, and became one of the best globally known of 435 members of the House. He successfully governed a state that was pretty evenly divided along partisan lines. Still, I called Richardson out ON MY BLOG several times, including for the way he treated some of the women in his cabinet and on his staff when he was Governor. I don’t believe that Bill Richardson was a misogynist, but sometimes he behaved as if he might be, and that sadly wasn’t something that would slow a politician down twenty years ago.

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I was slow to see that Richardson had one of the best resumes of public service in the nation and he was among America’s most prominent and successful Hispanic politicians. He served as a highly visible and effective Ambassador to the UN, was Secretary of Energy, and knew the nuts and bolts of America’s foreign policy and national security global tapestry. He got in some messes now and then, particularly when he painted a Los Alamos scientist of Chinese descent Wen Ho Lee, as a traitor.

He thought he had a shot to run for the White House in 2008, but he dropped out as soon as he saw there was no wind beneath his takeoff wings in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the time, I believed his decision was vain, and stole oxygen from other Hispanic candidates who had less baggage. Richardson had always been part of the Clinton political machine, until he dropped out of that presidential race and supported Barack Obama. Some like James Carville accused him of base disloyalty, of being “Judas Iscariot,” and I know from my own sources that the Clintons were seething. But that decision showed something important about Richardson. He could see the trend pushing Obama up and he knew it was an inflection point for the nation that he needed to be a part of, and he had to do what he felt was right, not what was comfortable.

That decision said something about Richardson. He was accused at the time of selling out in hopes of a slot in the Obama Administration (and he was later nominated to serve as Secretary of Commerce but later withdrew). That never really made sense to me. Had Hillary Clinton won and he stayed with her, he would have been rewarded handsomely with a key post. What Richardson did, in my view, took real guts. It’s always easier to remain a follower and to be so-called “loyal.” It’s much tougher to say no to those with whom you have been close and been friends and join someone else because of the issues of consequence they represent.

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Soon after that, I began running into Bill Richardson again in lots of odd places. I ran into him once in Narita Airport, Japan; another time in Doha, Qatar, and here and there at conferences around the US. And occasionally we’d just be on the same plane. He was constantly traveling and usually there with his right hand guy who has been running the Richardson Institute for Global Engagement, Mickey Bergman.

Despite some of the rough things I had previously written, Richardson just waved them off and would tell me things he hoped I would focus on, particularly how to think about effective diplomacy rather than what he often saw diplomats doing as PR and posturing stunts. This very public politician transformed himself into one of the world’s most successful and active backroom deal makers, particularly when it came to Americans held captive abroad. He would always insist that we stay “deeply off the record” — but he wanted to share with me how he was saving some of the people he was helping — and how he was often trying to bring a respective Democratic or Republican White House into alignment on a possible deal, the kind of horse-trading no government on their own could do.

Richardson was obsessive about detail and strategy, focus, understanding all sides when there was a foreign policy standoff — or of course if an American or a person of a different nationality had been wrongfully detained by a foreign government. Richardson’s rolodex rivaled Henry Kissinger’s or any US president’s.

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When I saw Richardson a couple of years ago at the Doha Forum, he talked to me then about cases he was working on and told me that the most important first step was to get away from accusations of wrongdoing and try and listen to both sides and to neutralize the toxicity. He tried to see where a leader’s own vanity and aspirations of greatness could be turned toward getting that human chess piece whom someone had snatched released. I could have listened to Richardson for hours — but he was always as curious about what I was doing as I was about him. He wrote me an incredibly generous note after one of my particularly challenging Doha Forum sessions, and I realized that connecting with people beyond their veneer was one of his great superpowers.

Richardson has gotten many detained people freed, including most recently Brittany Griner. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize four times, the most recent time just a few days before his death. The bottom line for me is that Bill Richardson evolved into a powerful force for good, and he took the storm of activity that used to swirl so publicly and flamboyantly around him and directed it behind closed doors, out of the media and out of the limelight.

I’ve never met anyone like Bill Richardson. Now, he seems so vital and necessary for a time of escalating, industrial level citizen-snatching by desperate nations. Richardson was one of our greatest Americans for not allowing victims of state power contests to languish in god-forsaken prisons and be forgotten. This was the meaning and purpose of Bill Richardson — to do the dealmaking and brokering that literally no other government or individual could do.

His departure from our daily lives leaves a huge gap. There’s no other Bill Richardson waiting in the wings — though his longtime right hand at the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, Mickey Bergman, told me: “The work that the Governor has been doing will continue. We are currently with more than 20 families of individuals held hostage or who are political prisoners. We will continue to work with them in the effort to bring them home.”

So Governor Bill Richardson’s presence in attacking the dark forces in foreign policy will continue. That’s an important thing.

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