WASHINGTON — Bill Richardson is a hulking 200-pounds-plus, but those who know America's new ambassador to the United Nations say the word that describes him best is "agile."
Take the time he met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to negotiate the release of three political prisoners - starting at 11:30 p.m. (Dinner was fashionably late at 2 a.m., but Mr. Richardson secured the prisoners' release.) Or in December when he squatted under a mango tree in a remote rebel outpost of Sudan to haggle with hostage-takers for the release of three Red Cross workers.
In fact, it will take all of Mr. Richardson's agility, and more, to maneuver the current obstacle course of US-UN relations. But the New Mexico congressman, who had carved out something of a role for himself as the nation's intrepid hostage-rescuer, has the high-stepping finesse it takes to do the job, say colleagues, former professors, and old school chums.
"Bill Richardson thinks on his feet," says Arpad van Lazar, one of Richardson's former professors at Tufts University in Medfield, Mass. "You know that he can afford to do it, because analytically he stays with his footsteps."
By all accounts, Richardson possesses top-notch negotiating skills, uses his bicultural Mexican-American background to advantage, and, besides, is the best third baseman the congressional ball team has ever had.
"What struck me as I spent time with him over the years is that he can relate to people from any station in life, from the president to the guy who operates the elevator to the gardener," says Ralph Cygan, professor of medicine at the University of California, Irvine, and Richardson's high school classmate.
The only blazing criticism - even from politicians who once characterized Richardson's 1978 move to New Mexico as "opportunistic" - is that he never could hit an inside fast ball.
A code of conduct to negotiate by
For his part, Richardson says his approach to negotiating with foreign leaders is "governed by several informal principles."
* He always accepts his adversary's turf conditions - the structure of talks.
* He always makes it clear whom he represents, something that may not always have been obvious during his semiofficial hostage-rescue missions.
* He prepares extensively, finding out as much as he can about the individual he is to meet.
* He always lets his host "vent his frustration at the US."
By listening respectfully, Richardson says he learns what message that adversary wants conveyed to the US. Then, he uses what he calls "connecting skills" to negotiate.
By his own account, thinking on his feet has been the key to his success. When he inadvertently insulted Saddam Hussein (he showed the sole of his shoe, a sign of disrespect, while crossing his legs), the Iraqi leader left the room in a huff.
Momentarily at a loss, Richardson says he decided not to apologize for the foot faux pas. Instead, upon Saddam's return, he planted his feet firmly on the ground, a gesture the Iraqi leader seemed to appreciate. He ultimately accomplished his mission: the release of two Americans who had inadvertently crossed the Kuwait border into Iraq.
Of course, Richardson will have to adjust to the strictures of his new job. Accustomed to playing the role of a rebel in pinstripes, he no longer will be permitted to speak with leaders of nations with which the US does not have diplomatic relations, such as Iraq or Cuba.
His style is easy, belying a political savvy and finely honed diplomatic skills. He always looks as if he's running late - a bit disheveled - but doesn't look as if he worries about it much.
Richardson was born in California, the son of a Mexican mother and Bostonian banker father. He grew up mostly in Mexico City, until he moved to Massachusetts to attend a prep school for boys. He went on to his father's alma mater, Tufts University, where he majored in French and political science, and subsequently earned a master's degree from the Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Classmates and professors describe him as a leader, very popular, a good student, and well-adjusted. He pitched for baseball teams at both schools and was looked at as a pitching prospect by the Kansas City (now Oakland) Athletics, Baltimore Orioles, and New York Yankees. But he chose to finish college instead, which he says is a good thing because his elbow eventually gave out.
Early on, Richardson showed a penchant for international travel and negotiation. His baseball teammates, both in high school and college, remember how he arranged for the teams to play ball in Mexico City during spring breaks.
"He was very comfortable in allowing these trips and relationships to be developed," says Dr. Cygan, who played on the Middlesex High team that went to Mexico City. "I think it sort of presages his political career and UN ambassadorship."
Acapulco or bust
It was clear, even then, that Richardson knew how to combine political savvy with diplomacy to get what he wanted.
Richard Giachetti, former captain of the Tufts baseball team and now a vice president of Fox Paper Company in Seattle, recalls how Richardson wrangled a couple of days in Acapulco for his young teammates. Richardson devised a ruse to persuade the coach to take the team from Mexico City to the beach resort, on the pretense that he had scheduled several games there. Only when they were in the air did Richardson reveal to the coach, who had a dread of flying, that the only sports fields in Acapulco were bullfighting rings.
After college - and baseball - Richardson went to work in Washington as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He moved to New Mexico in 1978, and worked for a year for the New Mexico Democratic Party.
In 1980, he ran a strong but unsuccessful congressional campaign against Republican House member Manuel Lujan. He went on to win a seat in the House two years later, after a new district was formed, and has won by large margins since.
Lessons from the mesa
Richardson says his New Mexico service helped hone his skills - patience, toughness, and cultural sensitivity - for negotiating with world leaders and for his new UN role.
"I've represented such a diversely cultural district," he says. "We have a lot of town meetings where you try to resolve problems on the spot. We have disputes over land and water between native American tribes, the Hispanic population, and the local Anglo population."
When Richardson negotiated the release of pilot Bobby Hall in North Korea in 1994, his lessons in patience came to the fore. The North Koreans stopped talks and ordered him out of the country, but Richardson says he flatly refused to go. Instead, "I stayed in their guest house for two days - isolated," he remembers. Finally, the North Koreans resumed talks and later released the pilot.
Rocky relations between the US and the UN are also likely to test Richardson's mettle.
His predecessor, former Ambassador Madeleine Albright, fought to remove UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from office late last year. Moreover, Congress has withheld membership dues because the UN hasn't carried out a reform program that meets with lawmakers' approval.
Richardson has the benefit of a Congress that sees a ray of hope in the new secretary general, Kofi Annan. But it remains to be seen how Richardson will press the UN to make cost-cutting reforms so that Congress will pay up US dues and arrearages that amount to some $1 billion.
"[The job] needs a person like this," Van Lazar says. "On the one side, he has influence on the Hill because he's been there. On the other hand, he has this no-nonsense approach."
WILLIAM BLAINE RICHARDSON
Born: 1947 in Pasadena, Calif., the son of a Mexican mother and Bostonian banker father. Spent his early childhood in Mexico City. Moved to Concord, Mass., to attend private school. At 18, he was drafted by the Kansas City (now Oakland) Athletics, but an injury ended his career.
Education: Graduated from Tufts University in Medford, Mass., in1970. Received a master's degree from Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1971.
Family: Married Barbara Flavin in 1972.
Experience: After college, worked in Washington as a staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Moved to New Mexico in 1978 and worked for a year for the New Mexico Democratic Party. Elected to US House in 1982. Served as US representative from New Mexico, 1983-97.