In 1998, Bill Richardson, then the United States ambassador to the United Nations, flew to Japan in search of backing for potential military strikes in Iraq.
Landing in Tokyo, he asked how a previous session, conducted by his boss, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, had gone. Not well, Mr. Richardson learned. Dr. Albright’s Japanese counterpart requested permission to smoke, she lectured him on the dangers of tobacco, and things never improved from there.
So Mr. Richardson began his meeting with a question.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked, pulling out the cigar he had tucked into his jacket a moment before. He left Japan with the assurances for which he had come.
Now Mr. Richardson, 60, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, running not only on his years as an elected official — he was a congressman from New Mexico and is now governor — but also on his parallel career, as a self-appointed and official diplomat. He argues that no Democratic candidate has as much international experience and puts withdrawal from Iraq at the center of his pitch. A recent New York Times/CBS poll puts him a distant fourth in Iowa, New Hampshire and nationally, leading to speculation that he could end up as a vice-presidential nominee or in a cabinet post.
A kind of at-large dealmaker, Mr. Richardson does not specialize in any one region of the world, and he has no landmark achievement — no Dayton Accords or Middle East breakthrough — to his name. He is not associated with one school of foreign policy thinking or set of positions; in fact, he says he was wrong about the first invasion of Iraq (which he opposed), the second (which he supported), as well as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he helped pass.
Instead, Mr. Richardson practices diplomacy as contact sport, whizzing from country to country, conflict to conflict, and charming, insulting, even touching his way through negotiations. (After he persuaded Saddam Hussein in 1995 to release two American aerospace workers who had wandered into Iraq, Mr. Richardson reached over to clap the dictator on the arm, causing Mr. Hussein’s men to reach for their guns.)
He is a singular creation: a governor whose mobile phone trills with calls from North Korean officials; a former United Nations ambassador who wore cowboy boots and told bawdy jokes; a negotiator who delivers tough messages cloaked in personal warmth; and a freelance troubleshooter who claims to have won release for Cuban political prisoners by needling Fidel Castro, in Spanish, first about his country’s baseball pitching and then ethnic solidarity.
“You gave Jesse Jackson a whole bunch, and you don’t want to give your Hispanic brother any?” Mr. Richardson said he asked Mr. Castro, describing the conversation in a recent interview.
He believes in the sheer value of bringing adversaries, no matter how unsavory, to the table, and in his own power to make deals when others have failed.
“He’s convinced that through his own force of personality things will come around,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state who has known Mr. Richardson since their days as Senate staff members, and negotiated with the Taliban alongside him in 1998.
“His track record is not one of unblemished successes,” Mr. Inderfurth continued. “A lot of things faded as quickly as his plane departed. But there are a lot of cases where there are longer results. He’s a baseball player, that’s his game and his sport, and in international diplomacy he’s hitting in the .300s. He’s got a pretty good batting average for success on, by his definition, limited diplomatic assignments.”
Born in the United States but raised partly in Mexico, Mr. Richardson’s early life was an extended exercise in cultural exchange. He moved among his prosperous family’s house in Mexico City, the poorer neighborhood surrounding it, and starting in adolescence, a New England boarding school where he was initially called Pancho. (“It’s not fair that I’m a Mexican and an American trapped in one body,” he told himself, according to his autobiography, “Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life.”)
He earned a master’s degree in diplomacy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and worked as an aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1982, he was elected to Congress from New Mexico, and when he arrived back on Capitol Hill, he set about establishing himself as a junior statesman — serving as an election monitor overseas, winning a place on the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
On Congressional trips, he would seek visas to unfriendly countries. In 1993, he went to Burma, winning a rare moment of access to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most prominent dissident — an experience Mr. Richardson said thrilled him, even if it did not produce lasting results. “Somehow I’d connected” with the country’s military rulers, Mr. Richardson said.
The next year, Mr. Richardson was allowed into North Korea, only to discover upon arrival that the country had shot down two American pilots in its airspace, and that he somehow had to secure their release. He did, sort of: he flew home from North Korea with only the remains of one pilot, killed in the crash, while the other was released shortly thereafter.
With the Democrats newly out of power in Congress starting in 1995, Mr. Richardson found diplomatic troubleshooting to be a new way of distinguishing himself. His willingness to insert himself into far-away, war-torn situations won him attention at home, even if it meant getting momentarily stuck at a Sudanese negotiating table over a single Jeep, as he did in the course of freeing Red Cross workers in 1996, or walking away with nothing at all, as he did on repeated trips to Congo the next year.
In negotiations, Mr. Richardson’s strategy was to play several different kinds of outsider at once. He could honestly tell his adversaries that he did not represent official United States positions.
“Most people in the State Department were scared to death when they saw Bill Richardson coming along,” said Richard A. Nuccio, who served as President Bill Clinton’s adviser on Cuba. But Mr. Richardson quietly looked to officials there for direction.
“He showed a lot of skill in working within the system,” said Mark Parris, Mr. Richardson’s National Security Council contact during his negotiations with Mr. Hussein. Because Mr. Richardson’s role was largely unofficial, he could not offer much by way of concessions.
And he did not look or sound like the usual face of the United States abroad. “Being a minority, being Hispanic has helped me with Saddam Hussein and North Koreans,” Mr. Richardson said. “They know I’m not a mainstream American,” he said, which made it easier for them to trust him. (What Mr. Hussein may not have known is that Mr. Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, can trace his roots on his father’s side back to the Mayflower.)
North Korean contacts
To understand how Mr. Richardson built and used his relationships, around the world and back home, consider the attention he has lavished on his contacts in North Korea.
Since his initial trip there, Mr. Richardson has been cultivating them, learning the names of their children and their favorite foods, playing host to them in Santa Fe. “I consider some of the North Korean people I’ve negotiated with friends,” he said. “Even though we’re ideological adversaries, we trust each other. We wish each other well on the holidays.”
Since North Korean diplomats are mostly ostracized, Mr. Richardson says, his contacts are especially grateful for his gestures.
Mr. Richardson, in turn, has used this firsthand knowledge to win access and influence — for instance, with Mr. Clinton, who while in office was hungry for details about the country’s most mysterious adversaries. Meanwhile, back on his missions, Mr. Richardson could tell negotiating partners he had the president’s ear.
Mr. Clinton had initially passed Mr. Richardson over for a position in his administration. But in 1996, just after Mr. Richardson, canny about the press, invited a reporter from The New York Times to write about his efforts to free Red Cross workers — and celebrate with barbecued goat — in Sudan, Mr. Clinton asked Mr. Richardson to become ambassador to the United Nations. In his announcement, Mr. Clinton mentioned the goat.
It was a big leap for him and a challenging assignment for anyone. The United States was nearly $1 billion in arrears on its dues to the United Nations, and had just engineered the ouster of Boutros Boutros-Ghali as secretary general.
Mr. Richardson loved it. The previous ambassador, Dr. Albright, by then secretary of state, had been a stern, formal presence. Mr. Richardson called diplomats by their first names, spoke to everyone in the hallways regardless of rank, ate lunch in the cafeteria, and told naughty jokes in meetings.
“Being a congressman, Bill Richardson came to the U.N. and worked it like it was the world parliament,” said James P. Rubin, a former assistant secretary of state.
But when it came to the fine points of diplomatic procedure, “He would look at me like I was speaking a foreign language,” said David Goldwyn, a Richardson deputy at the United Nations and then at the Department of Energy, of which Mr. Richardson became secretary in late 1998.
On one trip, Mr. Richardson “kept the president of Azerbaijan waiting for 20 minutes while he was finishing up at the gym,” Mr. Goldwyn said, and on another, he jokingly asked a delegation of Pakistanis why everyone in their country seemed to be named Chaudhuri.
‘Like a very friendly puppy dog’
But no one ever seemed offended. “He’s like a very friendly puppy dog,” said Stephen Bosworth, ambassador to Korea at the time. Greeting one Pakistani ambassador, Mr. Richardson “gave him a noogie,” Mr. Goldwyn remembered in wonder.
Though numerous people called Mr. Richardson a well-prepared, focused negotiator, the administrative details that came with the United Nations job were not his strong suit.
“It wasn’t rushing off to deal with some tyrant, it was more the day-to-day work of making the U.N. a more effective place,” said Edward Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia who was involved in the reform efforts. “I’m not sure it interested him that much.”
In the news conferences he conducted at the close of diplomatic trips, Mr. Richardson sometimes described his accomplishments in overly enthusiastic terms. After meeting with the Taliban in 1998, Mr. Richardson announced a “breakthrough” in efforts to end the Afghan civil war, news that won him headlines.
“Did I go a little bit too far?” Mr. Richardson asked Mr. Inderfurth on the way home. Probably, Mr. Inderfurth told him. Fighting resumed a few days later.
‘My own secretary of state’
As president, Mr. Richardson has promised, he would engage, persuade and seek common ground with the rest of the world — not just on a policy level, but personally. Asked in the interview how he would approach, for instance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he did not mention a specific plan, but rather his desire to try his hand at one of the most bitter and long-running conflicts on earth.
“I know if I got in the room I would make some progress,” he said. “I would be in heaven. I would be my own secretary of state.”