Sunday, December 30, 2007

Book Review: Between Worlds by Bill Richardson

Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, by Bill Richardson with Michael Ruby. New York: G P Putnam’s Sons, 2005.

Aphorisms, called Richardson’s Rules are scattered throughout the book and then collected together at the end. There is an index.


Richardson starts off the book with a story about negotiation with Saddam Hussein for the release of two Americans. It is a lively and suspenseful story and allows him to highlight his strength in foreign policy and his reputation with diplomacy. He states his philosophy succinctly on page 7:

My experience has convinced me there is nothing you can’t solve by talking it through. It is always worse not to talk. If two sides in a dispute don’t meet and they just restate their positions, it’s impossible to resolve anything. I believe in forcing people of different views to come together if necessary. When you bring people together – in negotiations, meetings, task forces, commissions – you can start to build trust. There is a mutual interest in making things work out, and any progress is better than none. Whoever is it, I will always say, “Just talk to them.”

Chapters 1 and 2 concern his childhood and high school years. Richardson was born in the U.S. but raised in Mexico where his father worked in the banking industry. His father was American and his mother Mexican. As a child he spoke more Spanish than English. Starting 7th grade he came to the United States to attend boarding school and had trouble adapting to using only English in the classroom and in school assignments. He met his future wife in high school; she lived near the school he attended.

His college years are covered in chapter 3. He was scouted by college baseball teams but he acquiesced to his father’s wishes and went to Tufts. The reader can really see a coming of age in just a little over ten pages. Richardson is good at reflection and seeing what experience helped shape him and the people who influenced his development. After college he went to graduate school, receiving an M.A. in International Affairs.

Chapter 4 outlines his first (unpaid) job in Washington after college and his subsequent move into the payroll. He also describes (p. 50) this conversation with his future father-in-law:
I went to Barbara’s parents’ house to ask for her hand. Barbara’s father, Jack Flavin, was all primed that this was the night. We had supper and then sat looking at each other. Barbara’s father goes to bed very early, and after a while he said,” Well, nine o’clock, I’m off to bed,” and off he went. I just couldn’t do it. When I got up the nerve, I made Barbara go up and get her father out of bed. We went to the living room and had a very anticlimactic conversation. As Barbara recalls it, I said to her father, “Where’s my dowry?” and her father aid “You ate it. I’ve been feeding you for seven years.”

The next chapter covers his move to New Mexico, and he is very forthright about doing so with the purpose of running for office. He outlines the kind of retail politics he used to win his first election, for Congress,
Richardson clearly had worked hard to win. He is also very forthright about the asking and repaying of favors that goes on in politics.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss his first 11 years in Congress. He outlines the committees he wanted to be on and why, early mistakes he made, and his initial forays into international diplomacy. Throughout the book there were things Richardson said that surprised me for someone who claims diplomatic and negotiation skills as strengths. For example on pp. 115-6:
Another trait of mine is to play games with people’s names. It’s meant in fun, to relieve tension. If someone tells me they don’t like it, it only encourages me. I used to yell “Matsu-EEEEE!” whenever I spotted Bob Matsui, and of course he hated it. I called House Majority leader Dick Gephardt “Geppy,” for example, and drove a fellow chief deputy whip to exasperation by rapid transition of his given name and surname: “Butler Derrick, Derrick Butler, we’ve got to talk.”

Isabelle Watkins, who worked for me for many years in a variety of jobs, including chief of staff, was “Izzie.” She hadn’t been called that since she was five years old. The first time I did it she said, “No one ever calls me that. I like to be called Isabelle.” And I said, “Thanks, Izzie.” I was the only person who could get away with that. I called David Gillette Joseph for some reason and have called all my male chiefs of staff Joseph ever since. John Kerry I called “Johnny,” and I could tell he didn’t like it. I called Al Gore “Albert” and he didn’t like that. He said, “Bill, call me Al.” Of course, I said, “Okay, Albert.”

That doesn’t sound very diplomatic to me.

Chapters 8 through 13 discuss details of some of his international trips and adventures, including hostage negotiation. The encounters include meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Raoul Cedras in Haiti, Song Ho-Gyong in North Korea (more than one trip involving negotiation for the release of Americans), Saddam Hussein and Tariq Aziz in Iraq, (again negotiating for the release of Americans), Fidel Castro inCuba (also negotiating for the release of Americans), Kerubino Kwanyin Bol of the Sudan (3 more hostages). Chapter 12 concerns a more personal matter. His sister, a doctor, who was living in Mexico, was kidnapped. This situation also had a happy ending.

The next three chapters (14-16) are on his years as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations. The situations described are primarily in the Middle East and Africa. The last few pages (234-241) discuss the impact of Pres. Clinton’s personal life on Richardson, specifically the young woman who owned the famous blue dress. Richardson was asked to see if there was a job for her at the United Nations, before the scandal became public. Richardson and two women on his staff interviewed the job applicant briefly and later offered her employment. She asked for time to think about it, eventually stretching it into a few months and then turned the job down. However, in the press fallout when the entire situation came to light, the job offer didn’t paint Richardson in the best light.

Chapters 17 and 18 cover Richardson’s term as Secretary of Energy. His tenure had a rocky start and he is honest about the behind the scenes political maneuvering that went into garnering support for his nomination. Security problems at the Los Alamos lab, including the lawsuit against scientist Wen Ho Lee, and the subsequent publicity did nothing to improve matters. Compensating government employees who were exposed to radiation at Oak Ridge and other research sites is another matter he dealt with. His international skills came in handy working with OPEC related situations.

Chapters 19 through 22 focus primarily on his work as governor of New Mexico. Chapter 19 is on the political process, how he decided to run and a description of how the campaign ran. The other chapters cover his governing style and some of the issues he championed. In part, chapter 22 concerns the 2004 presidential election and Kerry’s consideration of Richardson as a potential vice presidential candidate.

The last two chapters are more theoretical, pointing out some of his thoughts on governmental policy more generally, perhaps setting up his presidential aspirations. He also discusses some of the basics of political life, such as how to work a room and shake hands. It is interesting. He also discusses some of the people in politics that he admires, such as former president Bill Clinton.

One habit of Richardson’s that bothered me throughout the book is his tendency to point out the weaknesses of others when it is not necessary to do so. In on instance is the later suicide of a man whose freedom he helped negotiate (p. 148). Another is referring to the family of a young woman held in a foreign prison as “nuts” for not taking his advice on a strategy to get her released (201-3). Surely the family has suffered enough without being denigrated by name in print; when the book was published she was still in prison. These are just two examples.

Richardson is clearly a skilled politician and enjoys the give and take, as well as the total immersion that campaigning requires. He also speaks believably about his commitment to public service.

It is an interesting book and a good education, not only on Richardson, but also on politics generally.

Pennsylvania notes: Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinksy is mentioned on p. 111-12., Doc Schweitzer, media consultant, p.289

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