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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The Department of Energy, the Bermuda Triangle of Cabinet agencies, is claiming another victim this week. The Case of the Missing Hard Disks has doomed Secretary Bill Richardson's aspiration to be Al Gore's running mate. Republican senators are demanding Richardson's resignation. George W. Bush is turning the nuclear bumbling into a campaign issue. The Senate Armed Services Committee summoned Richardson for a spanking on Wednesday. Democratic senators ripped him. Republicans suggested that an independent agency, not DOE, should supervise nuclear weapons and security. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., vowed that the Senate would never support Richardson again. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., growled, "You have lost what credibility you had left on Capitol Hill." During his days as an international troubleshooter, Richardson liked being called "007," but not even James Bond could escape from the torture chamber Richardson is in now.

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Richardson's response to the Los Alamos fiasco has been energetic shirking. He brags shrilly about other nuclear-security improvements: "In two years I have done more on security than has been done in the past 20 years." He whines that he doesn't deserve blame, and he passes the buck onto careless Los Alamos scientists and their anti-security culture.

Usually the best-natured of pols, Richardson is displaying an uncharacteristic lack of grace. It's easy to understand why. He is surely regretting one of the worst career moves in recent Washington history: his 1998 promotion from U.N. ambassador to energy secretary. Running DOE is like herding rattlesnakes. Each of its responsibilities is worse than the next: holding down gas prices, bullying OPEC, building nuclear weapons, protecting secrets about those weapons, disposing of waste from those weapons, apologizing to all the employees made sick by those weapons, etc. The job requires vast technical knowledge, an ability to navigate a labyrinthine bureaucracy, high tolerance for the whimsical behavior of scientists, and a heavy interest in hands-on management.

But it does not much concern Richardson's supreme talent: personal politics. In the United States today, only Bill Clinton is a better natural politician. As a congressional candidate, Richardson set the Guinness World Record for most handshakes in a day—nearly 8,500. He held more than 2,000 town meetings during his 14-year congressional career. Retail politics and human contact thrill him: "He just comes at you and wears you down with charm and with humor," says David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. (Nemtzow describes hosting a fund-raiser for 400 people. Richardson arrived just off a plane from Turkey, sleep-deprived, and promised, "I'm not going home until I meet everyone in this room." He made good on his promise.)

The energy secretary credits his ease to a bicultural upbringing. Born in California in 1947, he grew up in Mexico City with a Mexican socialite mother and American banker father. He prepped at a tony school in Massachusetts, and he always moved easily between the Anglo and Latino worlds. Though he had no connection to New Mexico, Richardson carpetbagged there because of its Anglo-Latin ethnic stew. In 1982, he was elected to the U.S. House from the most diverse district in the nation: 44 percent Anglo, 34 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent Indian. (He jokes that he was the perfect candidate because: "I have an Anglo surname, I speak Spanish, and I look Indian.")

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David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Richardson thrived on Capitol Hill. He became House Democrats' chief deputy whip, a job that suited his love of glad-handing and strong-arming. Clinton passed over Richardson for the Cabinet in 1992, but the president and the congressman, each recognizing a kindred spirit, became fast friends. Soon Clinton deputized Richardson to act as an unofficial U.S. negotiator with thugs and monsters. In the mid-'90s, Richardson freed a U.S. helicopter pilot downed over North Korea, a pair of Americans who inadvertently crossed into Iraq, an American jailed in Bangladesh, and three aid workers held hostage in Sudan, among others. He was dispatched to butter up Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Haiti's military dictators, and Burma's tyrants.

Richardson courted the despots with the same rumpled, hail-fellow-well-met manner that won him friends at home. He played up his friendship with the president, flattered the hostage-holders, listened to them graciously, ate their food, told self-deprecating jokes, and cajoled them with promises of good press and American sympathy. He was magic. Sudanese rebel Kerubino Kwanyin Bol was intransigent till Richardson asked to visit Kerubino's child, who was dying of measles. That request melted the warlord, who dropped his ransom demand from $2.5 million to a few jeeps and some rice. Richardson's missions won him three Nobel Peace Prize nominations.

In 1997, Richardson brought his retail style to the United Nations. He worked the cafeteria, shaking every hand he could find. He admiringly called Kofi Annan "a political animal" and pegged Laurent Kabila, with whom he negotiated Congo's peace agreement, as "a street-smart Chicago ward heeler."

R ichardson's career, in short, testifies to the power of the schmooze. Unlike Clinton, he doesn't marry schmoozing to wonkery. He is weak on policy, often skipping complicated discussions for a cigar and a party. He has no great beliefs, which may be why he didn't mind flattering despots. In Richardson's world, personal relationships may trump principles, and friendships may supersede treaties. (Clinton exploited this during his Monica Lewinsky troubles. Click to see how.)

Richardson had excellent careerist reasons to take the Energy job: DOE has a huge presence in New Mexico. Energy secretary, unlike U.N. ambassador, is a real Cabinet post with real authority. And it positioned him perfectly for veep: a personable Hispanic with legislative, international, and executive experience.

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).

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.

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