A Little Diplomacy Goes a Long Way
By Laura Blumenfeld
The congressman sat under a mango tree, hand-dipping chunks of goat in a green okra slime, the meat bristling with hair. Mmmmm, Bill Richardson said with a dimply smile, to the Sudanese guerrilla leader across the table. Delicious, he nodded sweetly to the 8-year-old boys toting AK-47s. Roasted to perfection.
Rule No. 5 in the thug negotiation handbook: Always show respect.
Rule No. 1 in the administration-post jockeying handbook: Same as above.
Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) is having a strange workweek. On Sunday, he swooped into southern Sudan in a World War II cargo plane to rescue three hostages -- a constituent and two other Red Cross workers -- who had been beaten and imprisoned for more than a month in a reed hut shrouded with vultures. Today, Richardson is rambling around his office on Capitol Hill, hoping for an announcement from President Clinton that he's been picked for a top position -- probably ambassador to the United Nations.
"The president wants to talk to me -- again," Richardson said, hunched over a pay phone at Dulles airport, soon after landing Tuesday afternoon. "Yeah, he already talked to me last night."
His dark hair fanned out around his face and the pouches slung under his eyes were jet-lag black. But Richardson knows the rules: Show respect. He changed out of his T-shirt, put on a tie and slapped on a little cologne. Two hours later, he was wheeling his red Jeep into the White House driveway for a mini job interview, wearing his elephant-hair friendship bracelet from the rebel commander. Although he was short-listed for a Cabinet post in 1992, this time he could bring details to the president of his latest success as America's unofficial emissary to the diplomatic underworld.
In a five-hour negotiating session, Richardson had persuaded rebel leader Kerubino Kwanyin Bol to drop a $2.5 million ransom demand and settle for five tons of rice, four Jeeps, nine radios, a health survey and a personal pledge to help solve the unrest in Sudan.
"In the end, they know we have the juice to get things done," Richardson said in an interview. "People around the world view America as the last hope."
The deal comes just two weeks after Richardson, 49, sprang an American from North Korea after the young man -- drunk and naked -- swam across a river into the country and was arrested as a spy. Since December 1994, the eight-term congressman has also bargained for the release of captives in Iraq, Bangladesh, Burma and Cuba. The once low-profile lawmaker is now called the Clark Kent of Capitol Hill.
"He conveys an unusual mix of urgency, force and human compassion," said Bruce Laingen, president of American Academy of Diplomacy and himself a former hostage in Iran.
"He is able to operate as a friend of the administration, but not an agent of the administration," said national security adviser Anthony Lake, who was in bed with the flu but wanted to talk about his friend anyway. "He's energetic, honest and skillful. And he has extraordinary personal chemistry."
Richardson explains: "The reason they use me and not Jimmy Carter or [Jesse] Jackson is 'cause they're lone rangers with their own agenda. I try to stick to the administration's agenda."
The next morning, Richardson arrived at his congressional office, his tie uncinched, his stained shirt front and his shirttail sticking out. He has shiny brown eyes, a chin bigger than the rest of his face and a handshake that lands like a down comforter. A robust 220, he is taking diet pills. So far, he has gained two pounds. ("With different time zones, you never know when you're having breakfast," he offers.) No matter. Richardson's negotiating skills are gun-barrel smooth. His staff says he likes it when they call him "007," after James Bond, his movie hero.
"I like the challenge, I like the intrigue," Richardson said, explaining his motives. His missions are humanitarian, he says. "The best moment is when you see the hostages rescued, crying, and they hug you and say something nice about America."
Richardson has always been interested in international affairs. He received a master's degree in the subject from Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and began his career with stints at the State Department's congressional relations office and at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But his first diplomatic efforts happened by accident. He was on a one-day visit to Pyongyang in December 1994 to discuss a nuclear disarmament agreement when a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down over North Korea, killing one crewman. He negotiated the pilot's release.
There are grimmer moments though, when "you wonder if you're going to make it back, or if someone misinterprets an ugly expression and they'll shoot you."
Early in his negotiations with Saddam Hussein in July 1995, the pistol-packing dictator stared hard at Richardson, got up and walked out of the room. Richardson had crossed his legs, unwittingly insulting the Iraqi president by showing the sole of his shoe, an affront in some Arab cultures. He had been trying to persuade Saddam to release two jailed employees of an American defense contractor, arrested while visiting friends along the Iraqi border. Richardson looked down and saw that his hands were sweating, but he decided not to grovel.
"Mr. President, let me resume," he said, feet planted, when the Iraqi leader finally returned. After 90 minutes, Saddam granted a pardon. They took pictures and Richardson joked, "This picture is going to cost me some votes." The Iraqi president retorted, "And you think I look good -- posing with you?"
"You have to be prepared to fail," Richardson says now, but he can't help adding, with a toothsome grin -- "although I never have."
He hopes he won't have to curb his activities if he's named to a top administration post. Future assignments, he said, include Lori Berenson, a New Yorker held in Peru on charges that she was a member of a Marxist guerrilla group; and Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner from Burma, whom Richardson is credited with helping free from house arrest and whose movements are again being restricted by the military regime. In the meantime, he keeps a duffel bag packed and his trip checklist ready:
Blazer -- a raggedy blue, double-breasted Brooks Brothers blazer that he calls "my good-luck charm" and has worn on all his trips. "It's his blanket," said his wife, Barbara, an antiques restorer. "Right before North Korea, he made me take it to the dry cleaner to patch the inside of the lining. He said he couldn't go without it, so we got the cleaner to do it in a day."
Little presents -- ones he can distribute to his hosts. This week in Africa, Richardson passed out congressional tie clips and cuff links to the rebel commandos. As he was leaving for Iraq, Barbara recalled, "he realized he didn't have a gift, so he grabbed a pueblo pot I had bought some time ago. I really liked it." So did Saddam Hussein.
Talking points -- like this smudged note pulled out of his blazer pocket that turned the Sudan negotiations around: "38,254 people in this camp. 415 coffins for those who died." Four hundred fifteen children had died recently from cholera and measles epidemics, including Kerubino's own daughter. His son was dying from the measles. Richardson visited the boy during a break in the talks. He sealed the deal afterward, proposing a survey to improve health conditions.
Instinct -- codified in Richardson's rules: (1) make friends; (2) define your goal; (3) shrug off insults; (4) close the deal; and, of course, (5) always show respect.
Those rules have guided him in both his diplomatic adventures and his political career as a legislator and chief deputy whip.
"The most important element is understanding your adversary," said Richardson, expanding on his rules. Before flying into Kerubino's camp, Richardson learned the commander has 11 wives and 26 children, changes his mind a lot, rambles and hates to be interrupted while he's talking.
Four hours into the negotiations, the rebel leader refused to back down from his ransom demand. In an hour, their plane had to take off for Khartoum. So Richardson took the next logical step -- he called for a break and went to meet the hostages, two Red Cross pilots and an Australian nurse.
When negotiations resumed, he noticed tables had been set up. A goat was being roasted. Good sign.
This is when Richardson appealed to Kerubino's humanity, to his honor, to his family, to his patriotism. Kerubino relented, and the American envoy tapped out an agreement on his laptop computer.
"One final condition," Richardson said, reaching into his bag. "You have to sign the agreement with this pen from the U.S. Congress." A free pen tossed in with the five tons of rice.
Kerubino cocked his head and asked if the rumors were true -- was he going to become the next ambassador to the United Nations?
Explaining his success, Richardson said, "You try to establish a personal tie." For example, he began by telling Kerubino, "I represent a minority within my own country, as you do. I am a Hispanic."
Richardson's bicultural roots have been crucial to his success. Born in California, he grew up in Mexico City, where his father, a U.S. citizen, was an executive with Citibank. His mother, a Mexican, spoke to him in Spanish. Foreign governments who are hostile to the United States see Richardson as "not the typical-looking American," he says, and that gives him an edge, a way to bond with other outsiders.
When elected to Congress, he had to finesse the art of personal connections. His district is 44 percent Anglo, 34 percent Hispanic and 20 percent American Indian -- with 28 sovereign tribes, each ruled by its own governing bodies.
Sometimes it's as simple as a single word. When the plane rumbled to a stop in Sudan on Sunday and Richardson jumped down into the dust, he greeted the militiamen by yelling "Kibak!"
That's Dinka, he said, for "Let's be friends!"
He's the congressman who makes house calls. "I give the adversary the turf," Richardson said. "I negotiate on his terms -- but you have to be firm."
One of the toughest times he had doing that was on his 1994 mission to North Korea, to free the helicopter pilot.
"The dinner welcoming me is a disaster," Richardson wrote then in his journal. "The North Koreans had hoped I would drop the issue and enjoy the visit. No toasts were offered; I knew that the North Koreans had been rattled when I informed them that this incident would be my only point of discussion over the next 24 hours."
Richardson wouldn't let go, even after he was asked to leave the country. For three days he consulted with the State Department, racking up a $10,000 phone bill.
"My mission is clear," Richardson wrote. "Get information on the incident and the status of the pilots, bring them back to South Korea."
"He's like a pit bull" as a negotiator, said John Early, the American Red Cross pilot, after his release from the Sudanese rebel camp. Richardson "grabs hold of your ankle, locks his jaw and you have to give in, or be willing to carry him around on your ankle."
Richardson said he is going to try to help get Early a job. As a pilot for Federal Express.
Back in his office, Richardson looks happy. All the lampshades are tilted, the rug is rumpled, a paper bag sits on his desk, marked "your malaria medicine."
"In places like Sudan and Burma, you can almost smell the air, the aroma becomes a part of you," Richardson says. He unbuttons his lopsided shirt and rebuttons it correctly.
Today he is dressed the way he likes, in gray slacks and a blue shirt. But when he travels, he always asks in a briefing: What is the most respectful outfit to wear?
Showing proper respect has helped him win freedom for Americans all over the world. Which in turn has caught the eye of the president.
Now he is on the verge of joining the administration's inner circle. Is there a chance he would say no? What about his plans to run for governor of New Mexico? What about his constituents?
"It's hard to turn down a president," Richardson says with a shrug.
See Rule No. 5 above.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company