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.'
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.