Bill Richardson: a negotiator's faith in fairness and finding the common good
The Democratic presidential hopeful, perhaps best known for his success in hostage-rescue missions, says he's motivated by 'a big desire to resolve problems.'
Des Moines, Iowa — Send in Bill Richardson.
Starting in the 1990s, that became the way to win release of US citizens and others held captive in hostile countries. The energetic negotiator, a congressman back then, brought them home every time – from North Korea, Cuba, Sudan, and Iraq.
His secret weapon: "respect," he says, even for adversaries.
In some ways, Mr. Richardson proved to be particularly suited to the troubleshooting job abroad. Raised in both the United States and Mexico, he'd learned early how to bridge different cultures. And the teachings of his family and his church – to help one's fellow human beings – were a powerful motivator for those rescue missions.
"I have a big desire to resolve problems ... and to help people in need," says Richardson, now a Democratic candidate for president of the United States, during a recent interview on the stump in Iowa. "Coming from two cultures, I appreciate that people have different viewpoints but that everyone should be treated with respect."
One key reason he's running for president now, he says, is to try to bring Americans together to end the current era of intensely polarized politics in the US. Another taps his international credentials: to try to restore America's "moral authority" in the world community, which he sees as severely eroded as a result of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
It may well be Richardson's experience abroad that sets him apart from much of the presidential field. He's currently the popular governor of New Mexico, having won reelection in 2006 with 69 percent of the vote. But he's also served 18 months as United Nations ambassador during the Clinton presidency, run the US Department of Energy, and, before that, pulled off multiple negotiating coups with foreign leaders while a seven-term congressman.
"He really wants America to be a force for peace and democracy, and he understands the need today for interdependence," says long-time friend Mickey Ibarra, who served along with Richardson under Mr. Clinton.
Social justice via Government
The son of an American businessman and a Mexican mother, Richardson cites his family and the Roman Catholic Church as most influential in shaping his convictions and motivations. Catholic social teaching – emphasizing the common good and responsibility for creating a fair society with opportunity for all – is the foundation of his belief that "government exists to help people and be a catalyst for change, but not get in the way by creating barriers," he says.
As governor, he has worked in a coalition with church officials on issues such as eliminating sales tax on food and cracking down on "predatory" lenders to protect low-income borrowers.
"Going to church is an important part of my life and affects a lot of what I do," Richardson says. But in a campaign in which faith has been high-profile, he emphasizes that he does not wear his religion on his sleeve.
The governor also takes a different position from that of his church on abortion. While personally opposed to it, he is on record as saying he believes strongly in individual liberties and medical privacy for women.
Born in Pasadena, Calif., Richardson grew up in Mexico City, where his father headed the Mexican branch of the bank that later became Citibank. In his autobiography, "Between Worlds," Richardson recalls his childhood with passion. His earliest memory, he writes, is of his
"My grandmother was a big baseball fan, but she regularly cautioned me that I had to stay close to God if I wanted to do well," he writes.
Mano a mano with saddam Hussein
That instruction from his grandmother stood Richardson in good stead during one difficult negotiation in 1995. Indeed, his adherence to religious practice while in Baghdad figured unexpectedly in ending a standoff with none other than Saddam Hussein.
At the time Richardson was on a mission to secure the release of two Americans sentenced to eight years in Abu Graib prison. Working in Kuwaiti oil fields, the pair drove by mistake into Iraq, were captured, and tried as spies.
Conditions were tense. Iraq was under UN sanctions, and the US was dropping bombs on the country.
Richardson and aide Calvin Humphrey sweated out a high-speed drive to Baghdad in 120-degree heat, endured a lengthy meeting with Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, and, at last, faced Hussein in a room furnished with armed guards. The discussion took an ominous turn, says Mr. Humphrey, when Richardson, crossing his leg, inadvertently showed the Iraqi president the bottom of his shoe – an insult in the Arab world. Hussein stormed from the room. When he returned later, Hussein learned that Richardson had asked to go to Mass with Mr. Aziz, also a Catholic.
"I understand the Mass is much longer in this country," the congressman said.
"Saddam said, 'That's because you Americans don't confess all your sins,' " recalled Humphrey in a phone interview. "Without missing a beat, Richardson replied, 'Mr. President, I thought it was because you Iraqis have so much more to confess.' "
The quick-witted retort actually made Hussein smile. "He obviously had been testing Richardson," Humphrey says. "That kind of broke the ice.... The look was like, 'You got me on that.' " By the end of the discussion, Hussein agreed to release the two American prisoners.
The root of Richardson's success as a negotiator is that "he shows respect to whomever he is negotiating with," says Humphrey, now senior vice president for international operations at RJI Capital Corp. "He's able to connect on an interpersonal level and looks people in the eye, but still holds fast to his principles and positions."
The governor puts it this way: "I keep my eye on the ultimate objective and let my adversary save face."
From ball field to political field
Although wealthy, the Richardson family lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City, and Bill played with youths of all classes. His father taught him that work had dignity no matter what the work was.
The son describes William Blaine Richardson as "a very strong disciplinarian, a taskmaster" who demanded much. "My father had difficulty telling people they had done a good job; he just pushed them to do even better," the candidate writes in his book. "That's an unfortunate quality I may have developed myself. I put in very long days and sometimes drive my staff nuts."
But the elder Richardson also set an example. "He was very involved in helping poor people, including setting up Little League fields all over Mexico, and telling me it was my responsibility to help the less fortunate," Richardson said during the interview.
His mother, Maria Luisa Lopez-Collada Richardson, he adds, urged him "to try to resolve differences, talk things through, and respect other points of view."
At a tender age, Richardson had occasion to test that approach. For high school, Bill was sent to Middlesex, a prep school in Concord, Mass. There, the Hispanic-American was a fish out of water, struggling to find a sense of identity.
Baseball proved to be his saving grace. He was a star pitcher in Mexico, and when the Middlesex coach saw Bill, he moved him onto the varsity team. Suddenly, the kid tagged "Pancho" was welcome in New England.
"That life experience of traversing two worlds is very much at the core of who Bill Richardson is," says Mr. Ibarra, Clinton's liaison to state and local governments. "He's really figured out how to savor and embrace strengths of both cultures."
Going on to Tufts University in Medford, Mass., Richardson at first dreamed of a pro baseball career, and scouts gave him reason to hope. But his arm gave out and academics took on new luster in his junior year. He got his first taste of politics running for president of his fraternity – and found he was good at it and could make a difference.
The defining moment in his life, he says, came during his graduate year at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. During a trip to Washington in 1971, he was galvanized by a talk by Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota about values and the US role in the world. What struck Richardson most was the senator's passion for public service. "For the first time, I had an inkling of the real potential of political power," Richardson writes in his book. "I felt inspired to make politics and public service my life's work."
The big issues
On the campaign trail, Richardson seems to relish the hard question on the big issue. Take the concern of a woman in Rockwell City, Iowa, who tells him she's worried about illegal immigration.
It could be a touchy issue for a Hispanic-American candidate, but Richardson is ready: He declared a state of emergency in New Mexico in 2005 and deployed the National Guard along the border – the first governor to do so, he says. But a border fence will not do the job, he adds. He ticks off his plan: Double border agents and keep National Guard units there; crack down on document fraud and create an ID system; fine and punish employers who hire undocumented workers; establish a path to legalization for those already here (background check, learn English, pay back taxes and a fine); allow guest workers based on the needs of the US economy; and prod Mexico to create more jobs and "stop giving out maps on the best places to cross the border!"
On Iraq, he says the US military presence there is a recruiting tool for terrorists and discourages countries in the region from helping to resolve Iraq's problems. US forces should withdraw fully, he says, and a "diplomatic surge" should be undertaken to forge a political compromise, along the lines of the Dayton accords on Bosnia. That would become feasible, he says, once it's clear US forces are exiting.
'Power is good'
By most accounts and by his own admission, Richardson is not shy about wielding political power.
"Power is good if you do the right thing," the governor says. It puts one in a position "to fix problems."
The Albuquerque Journal in February wrote that Richardson has "used his power to ... get change in virtually every corner of New Mexico life, from slashing income taxes to creating pre-kindergarten...."
"He's first and foremost a political animal," Ibarra says. "He loves this stuff!"
Richardson has also been called "ambitious" and "pushy." Critics in New Mexico say he's amassed too much power, including reorganizing public education under his stewardship. The governor counters that state schools ranked poorly and were stuck in the status quo. Via a massive campaign for a constitutional amendment, he persuaded voters to pour $700 million more into public education. He calls the reform "my proudest legislative achievement."
Others credit him for having the energy and fortitude to tackle thorny problems, including managing the Department of Energy. Though warned that DOE was "a snake pit" of problems, Richardson says he was eager to take the helm when Clinton tapped him for the post in 1998. The FBI was already investigating Wen Ho Lee for espionage at a DOE laboratory, and Richardson was berated by a congressional panel looking into loose security at the national labs.
Yet DOE staff say he left a positive legacy.
"He understood leadership and the responsibility to take on difficult problems and try to solve them," says David Michaels, then an assistant secretary. "He called me in and said, 'I've heard from workers in Oak Ridge [National Lab] and other places that their work has made them sick. Go talk with them and see what's going on.' "
After Dr. Michaels delivered his findings, Richardson convinced the president and Congress of the need to compensate lab workers for exposure to hazardous materials. Most thought the legislation "would take years to pull off," Michaels says. But Richardson won bipartisan support, and Congress passed the program in 2000.
In Paducah, Ky., where workers had been exposed to plutonium but not told about it, Richardson apologized on behalf of the president.
Says Michaels, now a research professor at George Washington University: "On many issues top advisers would lay out options, and he'd always ask, 'What's the right thing to do?' He didn't mean the politically right thing, but the morally right thing."