Energy Secretary Bill Richardson

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
June 23 2000 3:00 AM

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson

He schmoozes. He loses. 

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For a while, Richardson eluded the Energy Curse that had tarnished the careers of Hazel O'Leary, Federico Peña, and almost everyone else who'd been secretary. Arriving in the midst of the Wen Ho Lee scandal, he calmed Congress by tightening security. He launched a pilot project to dispose of nuclear weapon waste, something his predecessors could never manage. This spring, his in-your-face diplomacy persuaded OPEC to boost oil production, which halted hikes in U.S. gas prices (though Richardson does not seem to have any short-term fix for the current gas price spike).

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But the Los Alamos farce is showing why political savvy alone is limited as a governing strategy. Richardson's charm does not reach the folks deep in the bowels of Energy. DOE's nuclear scientists, who are more interested in the free flow of information than in new regs, have been indifferent to his action plans and security upgrades. A secretary with intense knowledge of the labs and a deep interest in security policy—a wonk or maybe a bully—might have dug and bitched and harassed his employees till he knew the labs were clean. But that's not Richardson.

According to Richardson's Wednesday testimony, the FBI has turned up no evidence of espionage involving the hard drives. That is good news for the United States, but perhaps bad news for Richardson, since the alternative to espionage is something much more humiliating: incompetence. The huge lag between the drives' disappearance and Richardson's hearing about it, the shoddy record-keeping in the security vault, the rediscovery of the drives behind a copying machine, Richardson's persistent ignorance about what was going on at Los Alamos—all this make the secretary look like a sap.

Richardson happily played the shambling, self-deprecating genial fellow when he was lobbying for the release of hostages. But he is discovering, painfully, that there is a difference between playing the fool and being the fool.