Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson is dead at age 75
Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor and U.N. ambassador who later gained international renown for his globe-trotting missions to end conflicts and free hostages, died on Friday at his family’s Cape Cod summer home. He was 75.
Mr. Richardson, a one-time presidential contender and one of the most prominent Latino politicians of his generation, died at the family property in Chatham, Mass., according to a statement released Saturday by the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, an organization he founded in 2011 to promote diplomacy and peacekeeping efforts.
The two-term New Mexico governor died “peacefully in his sleep,” with his wife of 51 years, Barbara, present with him at the time, said Mickey Bergman, the center’s vice president. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
Mr. Richardson’s career in politics and diplomacy spanned four decades and included seven terms in Congress, a stint as energy secretary during the Clinton administration and a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007.
In more recent years, he was best known as the globe-trotting statesman and savvy negotiator who was repeatedly dispatched by Democratic and Republican administrations for a wide array of troubleshooting missions — efforts that would lead to several nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. Over two decades, he worked to negotiate the release of hostages and political prisoners, including those being held in North Korea, Myanmar, Cuba, Iraq and Russia. In one of his final missions in December, he helped secure the release of WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner from imprisonment in Russia.
President Biden, visiting communities ravaged by Hurricane Idalia in Florida on Saturday, paused to briefly acknowledge the death. “He was a patriot and true original,” Biden said, according to a White House statement that recalled a personal friendship that spanned several decades.
“He’d meet with anyone, fly anywhere, do whatever it took,” Biden said. “The multiple Nobel Peace Prize nominations he received are a testament to his ceaseless pursuit of freedom for Americans. So is the profound gratitude that countless families feel today for the former governor who helped reunite them with their loved ones.”
In addition to his celebrated successes in freeing hostages, Mr. Richardson was widely recognized for his high-stakes diplomacy in brokering cease-fire agreements and promoting conflict resolution in some of the most troubled corners of the globe. In the 1990s, he helped lead nuclear talks with North Korea, and a decade later played a key role in a complex dialogue to end fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
In 1998, three years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Mr. Richardson was sent to Taliban-held Afghanistan by President Bill Clinton, becoming the only high-ranking U.S. official to appeal directly to the Taliban leadership to turn over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for arrest and prosecution. The meeting was unsuccessful, but it was “a dangerous moment,” with a civil war raging in the country’s north, recalled former CIA counterterrorism official Bruce Riedel, who accompanied Mr. Richardson for the talks.
For his acumen as a negotiator, he was once dubbed the “diplomatic Red Adair,” a comparison to the world-traveling oil-well firefighter. “He sits there and listens,” former White House adviser and ABC News personality George Stephanopoulos once said, “and people trust him.”
Charismatic and colorful, Mr. Richardson was a skilled politician who more than occasionally attracted controversy. After his election to Congress in 1982 as a representative of New Mexico’s 3rd Congressional District, the Democrat was reelected seven times, becoming leader of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and deputy whip for House Democrats.
At the time of his presidential bid in 2007, he was perhaps the Democratic Party’s most courted Latino politician. He campaigned in English and Spanish, presenting himself as the embodiment of America’s growing diversity. He was known then, and since, for often striking a humorous and self-deprecating tone.
“I was talking to my mom, and I said, ‘Mom, I’m running for president,’” he said during a 2007 campaign stop in Phoenix. “President of what?” he recalled her asking him in Spanish.
He dropped out of the race in early January after poor performances in early contests.
The winner, Barack Obama, nominated Mr. Richardson as commerce secretary, but he withdrew his name soon afterward amid public revelations of a federal grand jury investigation into allegations of involvement in a pay-to-play scheme in New Mexico. The Justice Department ultimately declined to bring charges in the case.
Mr. Richardson served during the Clinton administration in two roles: first as U.N. ambassador, then as energy secretary. While at the Energy Department, he successfully pushed for the first national program to compensate tens of thousands of Americans who became ill from exposure to radiation or chemical toxins while working to build the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program — spurred in part by media reports in the 1990s that documented environmental hazards inside the nuclear weapons complex — has paid out more than $7.6 billion in compensation to ailing nuclear workers or their survivors.
But his tenure at the Energy Department was also marred by scandal after Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the Energy Department’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, was named as a suspect in an espionage case over allegedly passing nuclear secrets to China. Mr. Richardson was heavily criticized by Congress at the time over his handling of the security at the lab. Lee, who spent nine months in prison, was eventually exonerated and released with an apology from the presiding judge.
Despite his close association with the Clinton White House, Mr. Richardson surprised political observers in 2008 by endorsing Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. His disloyalty drew attacks from Clinton aides and stirred resentments that lingered for years. Longtime Clinton adviser James Carville would deride him in an opinion essay as “Judas Iscariot.”
Yet, more often, Mr. Richardson’s warmth and humor disarmed his critics and political foes, even during difficult diplomatic exchanges, friends said.
“Nobody was an adversary to him. Everything was an opportunity, everything was a conversation,” said Richard Klein, a longtime friend of Mr. Richardson’s who wrote his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. “He was intensely respectful and curious. With very few exceptions, you couldn’t help but love the guy.”
His reputation for amiability was reinforced by his gregarious and unaffected personal style. He was, for most of his life, a cigar smoker known for his rumpled clothing and unruly hairstyle. In a 2007 interview with Playboy magazine, he acknowledged having “common” tastes.
“I like sports. I’m a regular person,” he said. “I don’t make any pretenses. I like the arts — I like modern art — but I’d rather spend time watching a football game or a baseball game. I go to the opera and leave at intermission. I like to smoke a cigar.”
During his 2002 campaign for governor, Richardson vowed to shake at least 600 hands a day. On Sept. 16, 2002, he shattered Teddy Roosevelt’s 94-year-old record of 8,513 handshakes in an eight-hour period, The Washington Post later reported.
In his two terms leading the state, he helped pay for prekindergarten for all children, helped build a light-trail system to carry people between two of the state’s main cities and was an early supporter of legalizing medical marijuana. As a southwestern border governor, he was on the front lines of managing a cross-border relationship with Mexico amid criticism over illegal immigration and inadequate border security.
Richardson served at the same time as Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor who later became Obama’s homeland security secretary. She remembered Richardson hosting a private dinner with U.S. governors at his official residence before they gathered with their Mexican counterparts. That dinner underscored his ability to bring people of varied backgrounds together.
“I remember sitting at that table, and at one end was Bill Richardson, then Rick Perry, then Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she said. “I was like, ‘How did I get here?’”
After his two terms as New Mexico’s governor and the failed presidential run, Mr. Richardson founded the Richardson Center in New Mexico, which would eventually work with 80 families seeking the release of loved ones held as hostages or as political prisoners. Bergman, the center’s vice president, said Mr. Richardson forged a kind of “fringe diplomacy” that sought to “open the doors of negotiation with foreign parties to bring home those detained.”
One of his successors as New Mexico governor hailed Mr. Richardson on Saturday as a “giant among men.”
“The entire world lost a champion today,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said. “Bill Richardson was a titan among us, fighting for the little guy, world peace, and everything in between.”
William Blaine Richardson III was born in Pasadena, Calif., on Nov. 15, 1947. His father, who grew up in Massachusetts, met his mother in Mexico City — he was a banker, and she worked at the bank. Their son was born in California because his dad wanted to make sure he was an American citizen by birth. Richardson grew up in Mexico City and Massachusetts, where he attended prep school and then enrolled at Tufts University. A gifted athlete, he was the starting pitcher for his prep school’s baseball team and, upon graduation, he considered pursuing a baseball career before deciding to focus instead on his studies and getting a master’s degree, also from Tufts.
“That was a major disappointment in my life, not playing major-league baseball,” he told People magazine in a 1995 interview. “I guess I made the right choice.”