Bill Richardson Stands Down as Commerce Secretary Nominee

December 3, 2008 at 10:58 pm | Posted in Department of Commerce | 1 Comment
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Department of Commerce, 15th and Constitution Avenue, Washington DC

Department of Commerce, 15th and Constitution Avenue, Washington DC

UPDATE (1/4/09): Bill Richardson has stepped down as President-Elect Obama’s candidate for Secretary of Commerce due to potential legal issues.

When I was writing the post yesterday about New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s nomination as Commerce Secretary for the Obama administration (which was apparently “lost” by the movers), I realized that although I had a very good impression about Richardson, I did not fully comprehend why.

I learned some things by looking at the websites of the New Mexico Governor, the Department of Energy, wikipedia, a Frontline interview of Richardson, and a variety of other documents for which you will, I trust, find the pertinent links herein.

Born November 15, 1947, Richardson (a Scorpio) started his political career as a Republican, first working for Congressman F. Bradford Morse, a Republican, from Massachusetts, then taking a job as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before working for the State Department during the Nixon Administration under Henry Kissinger.

Richardson won election in 1982 as Congressman for New Mexico’s then new 3rd District and served in that position until 1997 when he was appointed US Ambassador to the UN by President Clinton. In August 1998 he was appointed Clinton’s third Energy Secretary, serving through the end of Clinton’s last term. On nominating him to the position, Clinton is reported to have said, “If there’s one word that comes to mind when I think of Bill Richardson, it really is energy.”

While in Congress, Richardson served on the Energy and Commerce Committee, was the second-ranking Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee and served on the Natural Resources Committee, chairing the Native American Affairs Subcommittee created in the 103rd Congress (1993), as well as a chief deputy whip.  Working with President Clinton on NAFTA, the 1993 Deficit Reduction package and the 1994 Crime Bill, the two developed a close personal relationship.

Although Richardson was not named UN Ambassador until 1997, President Clinton began sending Richardson to negotiate in a variety of hot spots beginning in 1994. As a result of his success at these international negotiations, Richardson was nominated for the Nobel peace prize three times and developed a reputation as a consummate negotiator — “no showboat, had no partisan animus.”

In February 1994 Richardson went to Burma and convinced military leaders to negotiate the July 1995 release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate and leader of the Burmese democracy movement.  Unfortunately, except for a period of 19 months, she has been held under house arrest since September 2000.

In July 1994 Richardson to Haiti met with General Raoul Cedras to “[lay] the groundwork” for the successful negotiations led by former President Jimmy Carter to remove Haiti’s military leadership and restore its constitutionally-elected government.

During 1994 and 1996 Richardson spent time in North Korea, successfully negotiating return of the remains of a US pilot (a constituent of Richardson’s) whose helicopter had been shot down after crossing the DMZ (1994), helping to set up four-party talks between the US North Korea, South Korea, and China to settle the final disputes of the 1950-53 war (1996), and negotiating the release of an American peace activist who had been arrested as a spy after trying to swim across the Yalu River (1996).

By 1995 even Saddam Hussein knew who Richardson was and is reported to have requested Richardson’s participation in negotiations for the release of two American oil mechanics who had “wandered” over the Iraqi border.

An unfortunate footnote to Richardson’s time as US Ambassador to the UN is his involvement in President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, offering her a job at the UN, at Clinton’s request, an offer she declined.

Richardson’s handling of the “espionage scandal” and accusations against and treatment of Wen Ho Lee was a costly disaster. He made attempts to tighten security but that appears to be a tough nut to crack.

It wasn’t all bad for Richardson at DOE, however. His powers of persuasion did have some effect. He got a nuclear weapon waste disposal pilot project off the ground, something his predecessors had been unable to do, and in the spring of 2000 convinced OPEC members to boost oil production, something George Bush was unable to do despite his close relationship with the Saudi Royal Family.

A June of 2000 Slate article about Richardson, in the aftermath of the Wen Ho Lee fiasco, summarizes his weaknesses and strengths:

Richardson’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.

Will Richardson be the Commerce Secretary the country needs? A lot is going to depend on whether he has competent Under Secretaries to help him manage the vast Commerce Department. Let’s hope he will serve the country well.

Truly interesting times.

(Photograph courtesy of The Library of Congress; photo credit: Theodor Horydczak)


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  1. […] Secretary of Commerce (Commerce, Science & Transportation) Bill Richardson […]

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