Every so often, someone asks me who my favorite politicians to write about over the years have been. I always place Bill Richardson, the longtime congressman and former governor of New Mexico, near the top of my list. I once mentioned this to Richardson himself.
“How high on the list?” he immediately wanted to know. “Top 10? Top three? I get competitive, you know.”
Richardson died in his sleep on Friday, at age 75. I will miss covering this man, the two-term Democratic governor, seven-term congressman, United Nations ambassador, energy secretary, crisis diplomat, occasional mischief magnet, and freelance hostage negotiator who even holds the Guinness World Record for the politician who’s shaken the most hands—13,392—in an eight-hour period.
“Make sure you mention that Guinness World Record thing,” Richardson urged me the first time I wrote about him, in 2003. “The handshake record is important to me.”
Why? I asked. “Because it shows that I love politics,” he replied. “And I do love politics. I love to campaign. I love parades. I don’t believe I’m pretentious. I’m very earthy.”
But why was the fact that he loved politics important?
“Because I’m sick of all these politicians these days who are always trying to convince you that they are not really politicians,” Richardson went on. I had noticed this phenomenon as well, and it holds up: that the slickest and most unctuous people you encounter in politics are often the ones who spend the most energy trying to convince you they hate politics and are in fact “not professional politicians.”
“I don’t mind being called a ‘professional politician,’” Richardson added. “It’s better than being an amateur, right?”
Richardson was an original. Born to a Mexican mother and an American businessman, he spent much of his childhood in Mexico City and identified strongly as Latino. He served as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in the 1980s and was the only Latino governor in America during his two terms in Santa Fe. Richardson spoke often about how his dual ethnic and cultural identities placed him in advantageous and sometimes awkward positions—“between worlds” (which he’d use as the title of his 2005 memoir).
His identities also placed Richardson in big demand as probably the most prominent Latino elected official in the country at the time. He absolutely loved being in big demand, and was milking his coveted status as much as possible when I first encountered him. That September, all of the 2004 Democratic candidates for president—John Kerry, Howard Dean, John Edwards, etc.—were straining to pay respects to Richardson after a debate in Albuquerque.
I was working for the Washington Post Style section at the time, and I found Richardson’s full-frontal “love of the game” quite winning. He was over-the-top and unabashed about the enjoyment he derived from the parade of candidates coming before him. “It’s fun to get your ring kissed,” Richardson told me that night, though he might not have said ring.
We were walking into a post-debate reception for another candidate, Senator Joe Lieberman. Like most of the Democratic VIPs in Albuquerque that night, Lieberman was an old friend of Richardson’s; they’d worked together on the 1992 Democratic Party platform committee.
“I wore this to curry favor with you,” Lieberman told Richardson, pointing to a New Mexico pin on his jacket. “You also saw that I spoke a little Spanish in [the debate].”
“I thought that was Yiddish,” Richardson said. Lieberman then got everyone’s attention and offered a toast to El Jefe.
Richardson let me ride around with him in the back of his SUV while he tried to hit post-debate receptions for all of the candidates. I noted that he’d instructed the state police driver to keep going faster and faster on Interstate 40—the vehicle hit 110 miles an hour at one point. When I mentioned the triple-digit speed in my story, it caused a bit of a controversy in New Mexico. Ralph Nader made a stink. (“If he will do this with a reporter in the car,” Nader said, according to the Associated Press, “what will they do when there’s no reporter in the car?”)
The next time I saw Richardson, a few months later, he shook his head at me and tried to deny that the vehicle was going 110. I held my ground.
“Oh, whatever. Fuck it,” Richardson said. “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
Richardson ran for president in 2008, but he quit after finishing fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire. I had since moved on to The New York Times and used to run into him on the campaign circuit. A few weeks after he dropped out, I went down to Santa Fe to interview him about the lengths that the two remaining Democratic candidates—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—were going to in an attempt to win his endorsement. Another Bill Richardson primary! What could be more fun?
“Oh, the full-court press is on like you wouldn’t believe,” he told me. The “political anthropology” of this was quite interesting too, he added. “Barack is very precise,” like a “surgical bomb,” Richardson said. “The Clintons are more like a carpet bomb.” He relished my interest in the pursuit of him.
“I want to make it clear that I’m not annoyed by any of this,” Richardson said of the repeated overtures he was getting from the candidates and their various emissaries. I quoted him saying this in the Times, but not what I said in response to him in the moment: “No shit, governor.”
I’ll admit that the notion of a pol who loves the game seems quite at odds with the tenor of politics today. People now routinely toss out phrases like our democracy is at stake and existential threat to America, and it’s not necessarily overheated. Fun? Not so much.
But thinking about Richardson makes me nostalgic for campaigns and election nights that did not feel so much like political Russian roulette. Presidency or prison? Suspend the Constitution or preserve it? Let’s face it: Death threats, mug shots, insurrections, and white supremacists are supreme buzzkills.
Richardson made it clear to me that he’d loved running for president—it was one of the best times of his life, he said—and he missed the experience of it almost as soon as he got out. But what he really wanted was, you know, the job. “I would have been a good president,” he said in Santa Fe in 2008. “I still believe that. Please put that in there, okay?”
If nothing else, the Clinton-Obama courtship was a nice cushion for Richardson as he tried to ease back into life in the relative quiet of his governor’s office. It also, he said, might get him a gig in the next administration. Richardson was 60 at the time and said he envisioned “a few more chapters” for himself in public life. Richardson told me he would have loved to be someone’s running mate or secretary of state.
“I’m not pining for it, and if it doesn’t happen, I’ve had a great life,” he told me. “I’m at peace with myself.”
He wound up endorsing Obama, who, after he was elected, nominated Richardson to be his secretary of commerce—only to have Richardson withdraw over allegations of improper business dealings as governor (no charges were filed).
Richardson devoted the last stage of his career to his work as a troubleshooting diplomat and crisis negotiator. He would speak to thugs or warlords, drop into the most treacherous sectors of the globe—North Korea, Myanmar—if he thought it might help secure the release of a hostage. Among the many tributes to Richardson this past weekend from the highest levels (Joe Biden, Obama, the Clintons), I was struck most by the ones from some of the people who knew directly the ordeals he worked to end: the basketball star Brittney Griner and the Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who called Richardson “a giant—the first giant—in American hostage diplomacy.”
The last time I saw Richardson was a few years ago, in the pre-pandemic Donald Trump years—maybe 2018 or 2019. We had breakfast at the Hay-Adams hotel, near the White House. I remember asking him what he called himself those days, what he considered his current job title to be.
Richardson shrugged. “‘Humanitarian,’ maybe?” he said. But he worried that it sounded pretentious.