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Ambassador Feelgood

Meet Bill Richardson, global glad-hander.

Over a thousand delegates gathered in early October at the Sheraton Chicago for the fifteenth annual Hispanic leadership conference. The gleaming hotel, towering over the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, seemed emblematic of Hispanics' growing political heft. Speakers at the conference included former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. But no one attracted as much attention--or adulation--as Bill Richardson, former Congressman from New Mexico and America's new ambassador to the United Nations.

Standing beneath a row of flags of Latin American republics, the burly Richardson delivered a stirring oration on the "Hispanic moment," both at home and abroad. "We have to start thinking of ourselves as Hispanics," he said, before adding, "there could be a first Hispanic president. It's not out of the realm of possibility." After complaining that "foreign policy has been the preserve of white male elites," he quipped, "Jesse Helms willing, we will have five Latino ambassadors." The crowd roared its approval. Off the podium, Richardson worked the room as if it were a reception in his old Capitol Hill stomping grounds. He smiled for the cameras; young Hispanic women embraced him as if he were a rock star. As Hank Lacayo, a former director of the United Auto Workers, approached him, Richardson let out a whoop: "He gave me my first contribution," he told the crowd. "Nobody would give me a dime. What are you doing now Hankie?"

An hour later, before an entirely different audience of academics and students in the University of Chicago's Hutchins Common, Richardson explained how his talent for political backslapping also pays off in his dealings with foreign leaders. Too often, Richardson warned, "we don't understand and respect each other." Then he regaled the audience with the story of his negotiations with Saddam Hussein for the release of two Americans who had strayed into northern Iraq in 1994. As he discussed his meeting with Saddam, Richardson sounded a bit starstruck himself. "I grabbed [Saddam's] hand and his seven security guards jumped," Richardson said. "He smiled when he saw me try to grab his hand. We connected a little bit. Two representatives of hostile powers connected. That's diplomacy for me."

ndeed it is. Richardson has, of course, espoused the Clinton administration's hard line during the latest tensions with Iraq. Saddam's refusal to admit American members of the United Nations team investigating the Iraqi biological weapons program is unacceptable, Richardson says. "There is no negotiation," he told ABC's "This Week." "He is in noncompliance, and he must comply."

But such tough talk is out of character for Richardson. In 1991, he voted against the use of force in the Gulf. The hallmark of his career has always been the extended hand, not the iron fist. Where others might see enemies, Richardson sees friends he just hasn't made yet. As a Congressman, Richardson was a pragmatist who overwhelmed his adversaries--both on the Hill and at home--with sheer energy and gregariousness. Richardson's political savvy has prompted President Clinton to ask Richardson to head his efforts to push fast-track negotiating authority through Congress. As a freelance diplomat, parachuting at presidential request into tense negotiations in Third World hotspots, Richardson tried to win over Third World tough-guys by telling them that he and they were really brothers under the skin. Even when he is conducting foreign negotiations, Richardson continues, in a real sense, to play the game he knows best: American ethnic politics. "I represent a minority within my own country, as you do," Richardson once told Sudanese guerrilla leader Kerubino Kwanyin Bol. "I am a Hispanic."

Richardson's buoyant persona has certainly endeared him to the American press. In the past year, Richardson has been the subject of glowing portraits in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New York magazine. He's a mainstay on the New York social circuit, mixing with everyone from Henry Kissinger to Oscar de la Renta. The affable facade, however, cannot wholly disguise Richardson's unceasing efforts to climb the greasy pole. His ambition is to run for governor in New Mexico, or even to be the Democrats' vice presidential candidate in 2000; his moves, both at home and abroad, seem carefully calculated to secure those goals. Richardson's dreams may be more realistic than many yet realize: he is the nation's most prominent Hispanic politician, at a time when Hispanics seem poised to become the nation's most potent ethnic voting bloc. But Richardson's political future will turn, in part, on his performance at the U.N. And that is one place where excessive solicitude toward an adversary can get an ambassador--or his country--into serious trouble.

Despite his frequent jabs at the old foreign policy elite and his emphasis on his Hispanic roots, William Blaine Richardson himself is no child of the social margins. He was born 50 years ago in Pasadena, California. His father, William, was the Citibank representative in Mexico City, and his mother, Maria Luisa Zubiran, was born in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Since Citibank was the only U.S. bank permitted to operate in that country, Richardson's father occupied a powerful position as the chief representative of the American business community. During his childhood in Mexico City, young Bill's American father and Mexican mother were fixtures in high society, a fact that Richardson prefers to play down today. He is similarly circumspect when it comes to the youthful days he spent prepping at Middlesex.

As a youth, Richardson was a standout semi-pro baseball player: the then-Kansas City Athletics actually drafted him for his pitching skills. Although he attended his dad's alma mater, Tufts University, Richardson remained a jock: "I liked women, fraternities, and baseball," Richardson told me. It wasn't until he earned a one-year master's degree at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1971 that Richardson gravitated to foreign affairs. A pivotal moment came on a field trip to Washington. "I went to the Senate," Richardson recalls, "and Hubert Humphrey gave us one of his orations. He turned me on, talking about Africa. I can still hear him bellowing, and I said, `I want to be part of that.'"

After graduating from Fletcher, Richardson secured a job as a congressional liaison at the State Department, then worked for Humphrey on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But Richardson began to chafe at subordinating himself to politicos: he wanted to be one himself. He promptly moved to New Mexico, whose ethnic makeup includes Anglos, Hispanics, and native Americans. Political enemies called him a carpetbagger, but his schmoozing and his Hispanic appeal paid off. In the late 1970s, he accepted an offer from the governor of New Mexico to work as executive director of the Democratic Party. In 1980, Richardson ran for Congress against the popular Republican Manuel Lujan, who would later become George Bush's secretary of the Interior. Richardson was an indefatigable campaigner and, to general astonishment, he came within a few thousand votes of victory. In 1982, Richardson moved to Santa Fe, where he defeated Republican Marjorie Bell Chambers of Los Alamos to win the newly established Third Congressional District.

It was as a congressman that Richardson first displayed his talent for papering over differences between hostile factions. In a way, he had no choice, if he wanted to stay in office. The bickering interests in his state included 28 sovereign Indian tribes, oil companies, the nation's biggest Sikh community, ranchers, and Santa Fe environmentalists. Richardson held over 2,000 town meetings ("I broke Al Gore's record" on town meetings, he boasts), and they weren't all puff set-ups. Whenever Richardson voted on a bill that he knew would displease one section of his constituency, he would immediately schedule a town meeting with them. His motto: "Open up. Then take the abuse from people."

Of course, Richardson also proved adept at another fine art of legislation: carrying water for ethnic interests. Andrew Athy, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist who has been a friend of Richardson's for three decades, says, "he is always looking to advance Hispanic interests, to make sure they're addressed. In private conversations and social interactions, he doesn't dwell on the fact he's Hispanic.... It provides him advantages and opportunities being a leader in that community.... Nevertheless, it's not a subject that he's constantly talking about privately. You can draw out from that what you want." Suffice it to say, Richardson had a keen sense of the value of the Hispanic vote. Richardson not only headed the Hispanic caucus, but was also chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs.

In foreign policy, Richardson's most significant legislative votes came in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and in favor of aid to the Nicaraguan Contras in 1985. He had not supported the Contras initially, but changed his mind after Daniel Ortega, the Marxist Sandinista president of Nicaragua, visited Moscow in the wake of a congressional vote to cut off aid. Given the subsequent democratic denouement in Nicaragua, some today might view his pro-Contra vote as sensible--a tough stand for the military pressure that ultimately forced the Sandinistas to bargain seriously with their foes. But Richardson now says it was one of his biggest mistakes. It is hard to see why, unless Richardson thinks that a more conciliatory approach to the Sandinistas might have paid more dividends sooner.

It was through committee work that Richardson really made his mark--and it was there that his preference for accommodation over confrontation in foreign policy really began to take shape. Richardson's membership on the House Intelligence Committee gave him a reason to fly around the world on fact-finding missions. And after the House Republicans took control in 1994, depriving him and his fellow Democrats of much of their power to deliver for domestic constituencies, Richardson's best opportunities to make headlines lay in the realm of foreign affairs. This was convenient for the Clinton administration, too: according to a member of Richardson's staff, Richardson worked closely with former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to defuse problems that the administration was reluctant to tackle directly. Each side got something out of the arrangement: the administration could say that Richardson was not an official representative and Richardson could strengthen his ties to Clinton himself.

Richardson's first such sortie was a visit to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in February 1994--the first time anyone outside her own family had seen the Nobel prize-winner since her house arrest began in 1989. But Richardson's visit may have been more about personal glory than practical assistance to her cause. A staffer who worked for Richardson recalls that "he had very little staying power for any issue. Whatever is going to get him to advance his own purposes" concerned him. Burma, the staffer says, "was a case in point. We set up a big meeting. He got it. He met with her. That was the extent of the importance of the event."

The meeting briefly made Richardson a darling of the human-rights lobby, but it wasn't long before he began reaching out to groups more sympathetic to the tyrannical Burmese regime. "He attempted to appease any group he was before," says the staffer. "He would call for sanctions before human-rights groups, before engagers with Burma he would talk about the need to stay open." Others voice similar misgivings. One human-rights activist says that she was concerned that Richardson was too eager for photo-ops with the Burmese junta and that he rashly voiced the view that political change would take place under the junta's rule. Of course, it never has.

Richardson's next major mission took him to North Korea, where he arrived in December 1994, to talk about the enforcement of the U.S.-North Korean deal to freeze the North's nuclear weapons program. Richardson's visit came, serendipitously, at the very moment that the North Koreans had seized two American pilots whose helicopter had crashed north of the demilitarized zone and who were being held in Pyongyang. (One of the pilots, it turned out, had been killed in the crash.) Richardson seized the opportunity to negotiate the release of both the captured pilot and the remains of the dead pilot. With State Department official Richard Christensen carefully explaining to him what the North Koreans expected, Richardson struck a deal. Through it all, he remained in close contact with the State Department, running up a $10,000 phone bill with then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

What's disturbing about this episode is that even after this lengthy exposure to the Stalinist regime in North Korea, Richardson still seems blind to its true nature. Kim Jong Il may be starving his people to keep a massive military machine running, but Richardson told me that "Kim Jong Il's success shows a civilian, more pragmatic side" is gaining influence. What evidence is there that the new North Korean leader represents anything but a new patrimonial communism? According to Richardson, a battle is taking place between hardliners and pragmatists in North Korea, and the side pushing for "limited engagement with the U.S. will win" and "will reduce the level of tension." Again, the question has to be: How does he know? "Sure, they're still a police state," he concluded, as if that phrase sufficed to describe a country with hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and a cult of personality centered on the dead figure of Kim Il Sung. "But isolating regimes never works." Maybe not. But sometimes the best way to deal with dictatorships is to speak the unvarnished truth about them. That would seem to be one lesson of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's and Madeleine Albright's previous performances at the U.N.

After North Korea, Richardson's next exploit came in the Sudan in December 1996, where he negotiated with rebel leader Kerubino Kwanyin Bol for the release of three Red Cross workers. Richardson got the hostages out by drinking goat-meat dipped in green slime with Kerubino and inquiring after the leader's ill daughter. And yet, questions linger about his mission. Andrew Natsios, the vice president of World Vision, observes that "one of the people he was sitting with is simply a criminal allied with the northern government [of Sudan]. He specializes in massacres and atrocities. He's not someone you want to be associated with. We paid ransom." A top Senate staffer on Sudan is even more critical. "You wondered if he was flying to Khartoum with a cake and a Bible," the staffer says. "It was a poor man's Irancontra." Richardson did manage to free five Sudanese rebels who had also been on the Red Cross plane that had crashed. The jeeps and radios that Richardson agreed to give Kerubino, the staffer says, may not seem like much to Americans, but "in that neighborhood they can change the balance of power. He's giving some fairly significant hardware to scum of the earth."

For all his peregrinations as a freelance courier for the Clinton administration, Richardson was also choosy about his assignments--that is, he was careful to take only assignments where he was likely to come out looking good. As a congressman, he met with Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic; but when Clinton asked Richardson to head a congressional team to monitor the Bosnian elections in 1996, Richardson demurred, citing a family commitment. Richardson had no intention of becoming embroiled in an election process whose outcome was difficult to predict.

Overall, however, Richardson was eager to do the administration's bidding because he yearned for a cabinet post. In 1992, Richardson had eyed the Interior Secretary's job, but environmental groups protested, fearing that he would be too sympathetic to ranching interests. Bruce Babbit got the nod. In 1996, Richardson, who addressed the Democratic convention in Chicago on prime time television, wanted to head the Commerce Department. But Clinton had another post in mind: U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Convinced by his mentor, Henry Cisneros, to accept, Richardson hoped, as Cisneros had suggested, that it might allow him to duplicate Moynihan's and Albright's bids for national prominence. By all accounts, Richardson has continued his genial ways since coming to the U.N. During his first day on the job, Richardson popped down to the cafeteria to chat with the workers in Spanish and eat lunch. In the Security Council, said one of Richardson's staffers, he'll walk up to the Russian ambassador and ask, "Hey, Sergie, how you doing?" But Richardson's desire to make friends with everyone he meets has not always served him well in the diplomatic snake pit of the U.N. The current debate over paying America's arrears to the U.N. has been a prime example. Senator Jesse Helms has insisted that American payment of arrears be contingent on sweeping cutbacks in the U.N. bureaucracy, but initially Richardson told member states that the administration would continue to push for more money. "I took him aside," says a Senate staffer, "and said, `Do you know what you're doing? You can't appropriate more than Congress is giving you.'" Since then, however, Republicans say that Richardson has worked effectively for U.N. reform.

Another problem came with Richardson's declaration this summer that the Security Council would be expanded to include members from the developing world. Richardson made it sound as though countries like Kenya would be given a permanent veto. He was attempting to generate publicity for expansion, but he had grossly exaggerated the changes being contemplated. According to a Senate staffer, Richardson's speech blindsided Albright, and she was not amused. Helms, who had seen Albright the previous evening, was furious; Albright had to apologize to various senators for Richardson's impetuosity.

For the record, Albright has only nice things to say about her colleague. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin says that "Richardson has done a great job threading the needle by informing Congress of the need to pay our debt to the U.N., while convincing other members of the U.N. that they must take reforms seriously in order for us to pay our bills." But behind the scenes, tensions continue to exist between Albright and Richardson, according to Hill sources, over his publicity grabs.

Richardson's term at the U.N. is, of course, still young. But his handling of the first foreign policy crisis on his watch--the Congo--suggests that the I'm-okay-you're-okay approach that he employed as a congressman and special-duty diplomat may now be a liability. In April, Clinton dispatched Richardson to try to speed dictator Joseph Mobutu's departure and to persuade Laurent Kabila, the current president of the Congo, to allow U.N. human-rights monitors into the country. Tutsi units in Kabila's rebel army had tracked down Hutus who had been armed by Mobutu and massacred them; Kabila was resisting international investigation of the massacres. But Richardson, ever eager to make a splash, antagonized the South African government, the U.S.'s best channel to the Congo, by announcing Mobutu's departure prematurely. (In the end, U.S.-South African relations were patched up, but a planned meeting between Mobutu and Kabila on a South African naval ship never took place.)

In June, Richardson returned to the Congo. He urged Kabila to allow in U.N. inspectors. Kabila agreed. "We consider this a major breakthrough," Richardson said at the time. "We've made major progress on the human-rights and humanitarian fronts." His meeting, he added, would "open up a new era in the relationship" between the U.S. and the Congo. But it did not. The commitments Richardson thought he had won through warm personal persuasion were little more than evasions. Kabila continued to block U.N. monitors. Richardson had naively declared victory. He overplayed his hand, and the negotiations collapsed.

And so, in late October, Clinton once again dispatched Richardson to the Congo. Although Richardson was reluctant to travel back to the scene of his previous embarrassment, he returned from Africa claiming victory on three fronts: first, Kabila had agreed to let in the U.N. monitors; second, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos had promised to remove his troops from the Congo; and third, Jonas Savimbi finally acceded to demobilizing his troops. But Pauline Baker, the president of the Fund for Peace, a Washington-based organization that monitors Africa, takes a skeptical view of Richardson's declaration of victory: "I just wonder if these agreements will be followed through," she says, adding that massacres continue to be carried out.

Richardson will have none of this. He maintains that his missions were a success--yet another vindication of his personalistic approach to diplomacy. In Chicago, he told me that "I was trying to balance U.S. objectives and international objectives. I was trying to educate... Kabila. You don't know the world, you don't see yourself." Richardson adds: "I got the team in.... I'm proud of my role, I was instrumental in getting a soft landing."

"People change a lot," he added. "I try to find out what they like--women, liquor." Richardson admires the dispatch with which dictators can operate: they have "big egos, you can get the decision. That's the plus of dictators. They don't have congresses." He also understands their psychological needs. One problem tyrants face, Richardson says, is that "many times they're isolated from the U.S. They need a platform [from which] to vent." The only dictator whom Richardson says is not so isolated is Fidel Castro. Richardson says that Castro is up on American legislation: "I found [him] to have a superior intellect. I found him [to have] a nice breadth of knowledge." Why a man of superior intellect would have chosen the losing side in the Cold War, or persist in shouting "Socialism or Death" amid the ruins of Cuba's command economy, Richardson did not say. But he did tell me how encouraging it was that he and Castro could converse in Spanish, talk baseball, dine late into the night, and smoke cigars.

But if Richardson's banalities are merely disappointing in the context of Fidel Castro's decrepit island, they could be dangerous with regard to the U.S. relationship with Iraq. One U.S. source says that Richardson mishandled the issue of U.N. sanctions by prematurely pressuring the French and the Russians. Richardson, the source told me, presumed that he could persuade them, personally, to go along with the U.S., not realizing that for the French and the Russians raison d'etat trumps hail-fellow-wellmet. In forcing an early vote, he pushed the countries into a corner. Saddam promptly interpreted divisions in the Security Council as an indication of weakness in the anti-Iraq coalition, and threatened war.

With Saddam now trying to bar American members of a U.N. weapons team, the limitations of Richardson's nostrums about mutual understanding are even more evident. Yet he seems loathe to abandon them. Only a few weeks before the crisis, Richardson was stressing the deficiencies of America's approach to Saddam's part of the world: "We have right now a weak relationship with the Arab world," Richardson told his audience at the University of Chicago. "It's one of our biggest weaknesses. Muslim radicalism has separated us from the biggest growing mass of people. We have to do better."

There was something endearing about the spectacle of Richardson, who cheerfully admits he was an indifferent student, fending off a fusillade of questions from the earnest Chicago undergraduates. "Jesus, this guy knows his stuff," Richardson said as he fielded a student's tough question about American policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It was vintage Richardson. Self-deprecating, cheerful, appealing--it was the kind of remark that makes you like the man, but wonder, as a former aide puts it, "is he really ready for the next big step?"