Bill Richardson, Champion of Americans Held Overseas, Dies at 75
Bill Richardson, who served two terms as governor of New Mexico and 14 years as a congressman, then continued to devote himself to liberating Americans who were being held hostage or who he believed were being wrongfully detained by hostile countries overseas, died on Friday at his summer home in Chatham, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was 75.
His death was announced by the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, which he founded. A cause was not given.
Under President Bill Clinton, Mr. Richardson was also ambassador to the United Nations, succeeding Madeleine Albright in early 1997, after having served in the House of Representatives, as a member of the New Mexico delegation, from January 1983 to February 1997 and as the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He was Mr. Clinton’s secretary of energy from 1998 until 2001.
Born in California — his mother had traveled to Pasadena from Mexico City, where the family was living, to give birth so that there were would be no question about his citizenship — and descended from William Brewster, a passenger on the Mayflower, Mr. Richardson was the nation’s only Hispanic governor during his two terms, from 2003 to 2011.
Representative Gabe Vasquez, a New Mexico Democrat, described Mr. Richardson in a statement as “one of the most powerful Hispanics in politics that this nation has seen.”
But his home-state popularity — he was re-elected in 2006 by a 68 percent to 32 percent margin, a record for New Mexico — did not translate into national elective office.
In 2008, Mr. Richardson mounted a short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination but finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Despite having served in the Clinton administration, he endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.
After winning the presidency, Mr. Obama nominated Mr. Richardson as secretary of commerce, but Mr. Richardson withdrew because of a pending investigation into allegations of improper business dealings in his home state. No charges were ever filed against him, and the investigation was later dropped.
After Mr. Richardson completed his second term as governor, he honed the quasi-public and freelance diplomacy skills that he had learned first in college and further developed on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the State Department, when he worked on congressional relations under Henry A. Kissinger.
His separate humanitarian missions on behalf of some 80 families won the release of hostages and American servicemen in countries hostile to the United States, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba and Colombia.
“I plead guilty to photo ops and getting human beings rescued and improving the lives of human beings,” he once said.
In 2006, he persuaded President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to free the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Paul Salopek.
The next year, he went to North Korea to recover the remains of American soldiers killed in the Korean War.
Mr. Richardson helped negotiate the release of Michael White, a Navy veteran who was freed by Iran in 2020; flew to Moscow for a meeting with Russian government officials in the months before the release last year of Trevor Reed, a Marine veteran, in a prisoner swap; and worked on the case of Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. star who was held prisoner and later released by Moscow.
He also helped secure the release of the American journalist Danny Fenster from a Myanmar prison in 2021 and this year negotiated the freedom of Taylor Dudley, who had crossed the border from Poland into Russia.
Mr. Richardson was respectful, realistic, canny, never condescending. His protocol included: Carry a bunch of nice pens, and “when your opponent admires one, give it to him.” But he added: “When your watch is admired, don’t give it away. If you do, it’s a sign of weakness.” Also, know where you can settle. Identify eight essential goals and achieve five.
Still, not every mediation or negotiation was successful. In 1998, on a mission for Mr. Clinton, he failed to persuade Taliban leaders to hand over Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader.
After conferring with autocrats like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro, Mr. Richardson once described himself as “the informal under secretary for thugs.” He put it more diplomatically in the title of a 2013 book: “How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories From a Master Negotiator.” (He also wrote a memoir, “Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life,” published in 2005.)
“There was no person that Governor Richardson would not speak with if it held the promise of returning a person to freedom,” Mickey Bergman, the vice president of the Richardson Center, said in a statement.
Given all of Mr. Richardson’s public offices, the center said in a statement, his enduring legacy would be his participation “in ‘fringe diplomacy’ to open the doors of negotiation with foreign parties to bring home those detained.”
William Blaine Richardson III was born in Pasadena on Nov. 15, 1947. His father, who was of Anglo-American and Mexican descent, was a bank executive from Boston who worked in Mexico for what is now Citibank and who had been born on a ship en route to Nicaragua when his own father, a biologist, was on his way to collect museum specimens.
“My father had a complex about not having been born in the United States,” Mr. Richardson told The Washington Post in 2007.
That was why his mother, Maria Luisa Lopez-Collada Marquez, the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Spanish father who had been his father’s secretary, was dispatched to California to give birth to Bill.
When he was 13, Bill was sent to the United States and attended Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. He earned a bachelor’s degree in French and political science in 1970 from Tufts University — he also pitched in the Cape Cod League — and a master’s in international affairs in 1971 from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts.
In 1972, he married Barbara Flavin, whom he had met in high school. She survives him.
After working in Washington, Mr. Richardson, who had become smitten with politics there, moved to New Mexico, where, given his Hispanic heritage, he figured he had the greatest chance of being elected to public office. He ran for Congress in 1980 and lost — his only electoral defeat until the 2008 presidential race — but was elected from a new district covering northern New Mexico in 1980.
While in Congress, he sponsored a number of bills on Native American rights.
His record as energy secretary was mixed. During his tenure, computer equipment containing nuclear-weapons secrets went missing at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the government botched the investigation and firing of Wen Ho Lee, a former weapons scientist, who spent nine months in solitary confinement for mishandling sensitive information, only to plead guilty to one count of mishandling computer files and receive an apology from a federal judge.
Mr. Richardson set more efficient energy standards for air-conditioners and other appliances, established the National Nuclear Security Administration, carried out a nuclear waste disposal plan, and oversaw the return of 84,000 acres of federal land to the Northern Ute tribe of Utah.
As governor, he raised teachers’ salaries, abolished the death penalty, signed legislation to allow New Mexicans to carry concealed handguns, established a fund to pay for public works, supported gay rights, raised the minimum wage and offered prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds. But he declined to pardon William H. Bonney, known as Billy the Kid, for killing a New Mexico sheriff 130 years earlier. (Bonney was said to have been promised a pardon if he testified in another case.)
Mr. Richardson said of his two terms as governor: “It’s the most fun. You can get the most done. You set the agenda.”
In 1997, when he was at the United Nations, he was asked by the White House to interview Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who would figure in Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and who wanted to return to New York from Washington, for a job. He was said to have offered her one, which she declined.
He usually got his way, though, as a result of relentless bargaining and a gregarious personality.
In his first campaign for governor, Mr. Richardson set a Guinness World Record by shaking 13,392 hands in eight hours at the New Mexico State Fair. And the lengths to which he went to impress the president who appointed him U.N. ambassador became the stuff of legend. Those means were not necessarily always intentional.
In December 1996, he helped free three aid workers — an American, an Australian and a Kenyan — who were being held in Sudan, which the United States had declared a terrorist state, after persuading rebel leaders to drop their demand for millions of dollars in ransom money and agree instead to trade the prisoners for rice, Jeeps, radios and a health survey of their disease-ridden camp.
When Mr. Richardson returned to Washington to brief President Clinton on the negotiations, prominent on the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a copy of The New York Times’s article about the hostage affair.
It vividly described a negotiating table attended by barefoot, rifle-toting boys and a retinue of observers, including vultures, which perched on the roofs of thatched huts as a goat was being roasted nearby.
As Mr. Richardson later told the Times reporter Tim Weiner, the president asked him, “Did y’all eat the goat?” Mr. Richardson allowed that, indeed, he had.
Mr. Clinton smiled and asked, “How’d you like to be ambassador to the United Nations?”
Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts
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