WASHINGTON — Ever since his days as a congressman driving around Washington in a fire-red Jeep, Bill Richardson has been a mediator of global proportions. First, he stared eye-to-eye with North Korea as an international troubleshooter. Then he wrestled with war in the Balkans as America's top ambassador to the United Nations.
Now, one of the few minorities to have held two Cabinet posts has pulled off one of his most visible diplomatic dances yet: winning concessions from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Supporters say Energy Secretary Richardson won a substantial victory on one of America's pocketbook issues - and perhaps sweetened his appeal as a potential vice presidential running mate. But he didn't get as much as the administration wanted - and critics argue that the drops of oil he wrung from OPEC came at the cost of harming long-term relations with some members.
A day after the announcement, the man himself seemed as jubilant as someone snapping the last piece of a 3,000-piece puzzle into place. "Did I mention that your gas prices are about to go down?" Richardson repeated enthusiastically to a cheering group of Energy Department employees just hours after the announcement.
Richardson rejects the criticism that has come in the wake of the Vienna gathering. "We didn't strong-arm anyone," he said in an interview. "I treated it like my days as whip," the day-to-day tactician who garners individual votes in the House.
But outsiders have given him mixed results. "I think they were a little overly assertive," says George Beranek, an analyst at the Petroleum Finance Company, an industry consulting firm in Washington. "They got an increase, it wasn't much, and there may be a backlash."
Others say he did as well as could be expected. "Given the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy which is not his fault, he's to be commended for his efforts," says Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute here.
Buoyed by the OPEC decision, Richardson plans to push the Republican Congress for legislation to continue funding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve while creating a heating-oil reserve. He'll also push them for tax incentives to promote the development of alternative fuels.
Throughout his career, the highest-ranking Hispanic currently in government has shown skill in turning potential debacles into political successes. He was confirmed to the Energy post in July 1998, during an internal security crisis at the DOE's nuclear laboratories.
He responded by beefing up security, instituting polygraph testing, and doing it all publicly to defuse his critics.
"It is a commentary on his heartiness and his creativity that he survived both," the espionage crisis and high fuel prices, says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution here.
As a special envoy for President Clinton, he earned a reputation as a problem solver and negotiator, parachuting into one international crisis after another. He negotiated the release in 1994 of American pilot Bobby Hall from North Korean captors. In 1995, he successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of prisoners and has worked similar deals in Sudan and Cuba. He's been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to free people.
"Intense would be a good way of describing him," says Robert Pfaltzgraff at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., where Richardson earned his masters degree in 1971.
That intensity is as evident in his personal regime as his work. His love of exercise prompted him once to drive 45 minutes in the Ukraine to find a gym. He proudly points out that he's recently lost 30 pounds, putting him closer to the shape he was in when he was a minor league baseball player.
His intensity is a marvel even to a former member of his security detail. "He's like this 24-7," says the normally tight-lipped former agent.
The day after the OPEC announcement came, Richardson appeared on three of the national morning TV talk shows, had his hour workout, and addressed the Democratic Caucus.
Then it was on to the DOE facility in Germantown, Md., to dedicate a new fitness center employees had requested during regular brown-bag lunches with him.
THE exercise facility is emblematic of why he is popular with his staffers, who credit him with increasing transit subsidies and day-care facilities. Such bread-and-butter issues have bought him time, in the eyes of some Energy staff, to make weightier policy changes. For example, DOE employee Mae Ling Chen says that while she "hasn't seen anything yet," in terms of antidiscrimination policies, "I feel like he's making the effort."
In the backseat during the half-hour drive from Capitol Hill to the facility, Richardson reflected on his tenure.
*When asked about the days of $1-a-gallon gasoline, he replies, "I don't think we'll ever see that again," he says pointing to the balance the administration seeks in fuel prices. "Ten dollars a barrel is too low, $30 is too high."
*Speaking to the fallout from the New Mexico spy-scandal involving Asian scientist Wen Ho Lee: "I regret that Asian Americans feel maligned," and is stepping up recruiting efforts as a remedy.
*On talk that he's on the short list for the vice presidential nomination, "I'm aware of the speculation," but not actively campaigning for it. In true Oscar fashion, he adds that it's an honor to be the first Hispanic even mentioned for the job.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society