THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN LIFE
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 374 pages
Scattered through his new autobiography are what New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) calls "Richardson's Rules," two dozen or so tips for success drawn from three decades of experience in public life. One says: "Be discreet and don't volunteer too much information," which the author then proceeds to violate on practically every page.
The result is an entertaining and sometimes surprisingly candid account of a life spent as a frightened prep school student, aspiring professional baseball player, congressional and executive branch aide, member of Congress, roving amateur diplomat, United Nations ambassador, Cabinet officer, would-be vice presidential candidate and now governor -- with a 2008 presidential campaign chapter presumably still to be written for a subsequent edition.
"Between Worlds" was written with the help of veteran journalist Michael Ruby, who does an impressive job of capturing Richardson's conversational and gossipy tone in a volume that is long on storytelling and provides just enough of Richardson's political philosophy and record.
The title refers to Richardson's split heritage. His father was an American; his mother was Mexican. He was born in the United States but grew up in Mexico City until his father decided Richardson should attend prep school in the United States. Just shy of 13, he arrived at Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., feeling overwhelmed. "I felt out of my depth. . . . I began to worry about whether I was going to make it academically," he writes.
Baseball turned around his life at prep school, and for a time Richardson considered a career in professional baseball, until stern disapproval from his father and later physical problems snuffed out that dream. After graduating from Tufts, he came to Washington as a staff member for a Republican House member, and then shifted to the State Department. He later moved with his wife, Barbara, to New Mexico with an eye on winning a seat in the U.S. House. In 1982, he won that seat and spent 15 years there before moving into the Clinton administration.
One of the country's most prominent Latino leaders, Richardson is a gregarious politician who loves a good meal, a fine cigar, and the exercise of power for large or small purposes, whether negotiating with Saddam Hussein to win the release of American hostages in Iraq, brokering deals in the House or holding up Democratic Party officials for a prime skybox and extra floor passes at the 2004 national convention in Boston. He writes about all of it.
Richardson has spent considerable time over the years with some of the most notorious dictators and warlords on the planet, including Hussein, Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Nigeria's Sani Abacha, Sudanese rebel leader Kerubino Kwanyin Bol, the North Koreans and the Taliban. There seems to be no one Richardson isn't prepared to talk to.
He had sweaty palms when he met with Hussein in 1995 to win release of two U.S. contractors, and he offended the Iraqi leader by crossing his legs and accidentally exposing the sole of his shoe, a sign of disrespect in Arab culture. Hussein stormed out of the room, only to return later and agree to release the two hostages, one of several such successes for Richardson.
By the time he was confirmed as President Bill Clinton's U.N. ambassador in early 1997, Richardson was an experienced amateur diplomat, but as he notes in the book, he was "still a little green about this business of formal diplomacy." He got a swift tutorial from then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright after being approached by Iran's U.N. ambassador, with whom he had dealt informally while in Congress. The United States, she reminded Richardson, had no formal relations with Iran; he would have to cut off all contact.
Richardson writes that he loved his travel-intensive time at the United Nations, which was cut short when Clinton made him secretary of energy. One picture in the book, which likely won't show up in a future campaign brochure, shows a smiling Richardson with smiling Taliban leaders. The author describes this as "an extremely rare moment of levity" during his 1998 visit to Afghanistan.
Richardson retells the story of his cameo role in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. He was asked by the White House to interview her for a U.N. press job in late 1997, at a time when he and the world knew nothing of the relationship between Clinton and the ex-White House intern.
When the scandal broke a few months later, Richardson decided to speak openly about the circumstances of the interview and called then-White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles to give him a heads-up. But Bowles was outraged by Clinton's behavior and cut him off.
"I don't give a damn what you do," Richardson says Bowles told him. "Don't you tell me about this. I have nothing to do with it. I'm not touching it." Bowles then hung up the phone. Richardson says his reaction was: "Oh great, the chief of staff to the president was above it all, unwilling to participate with a bunch of seedy [expletive] like me."
Clinton called him late at night for long talks about the scandal during 1998. "I got the distinct impression in these chats that he was fishing for a way to tell his wife that he'd had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky," he writes.
Richardson has great admiration for Clinton and his political talents, but he isn't worried about offending the former president, if his own political interests require it. Richardson told Clinton he wanted his help when he ran for governor of New Mexico -- but when Richardson was given a poll that showed how unpopular Clinton was with swing voters, he retracted the invitation.
They quickly patched things up, according to Richardson, but when he was invited to be the Democratic speaker at last year's Gridiron Club dinner, he couldn't resist another dig at the Clintons. Ticking through a list of potential 2008 candidates, he said Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack would bring back the Midwest, Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. would bring back the national security vote. "And there's Hillary Clinton," he said. "She'd bring back the White House furniture."
Retelling the episode in the book, Richardson writes, "He's [Clinton] probably a little [expletive] off, but it was meant in fun, of course. I really do love the guy."
Balz is a Washington Post national political correspondent.