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High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House - Part 3

By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright 2007, Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
   
Editor's note: This is Part 3 of an in-depth biography written by Journal reporters Leslie Linthicum and Thomas J. Cole, who spent months researching this project. It is appearing over five weeks in the Sunday Journal.
   

    The past four years had been remarkable, a climb to prominence a congressman from New Mexico could only have dreamed of.
    Bill Richardson's good fortune began in late 1996 with an early-morning phone call from President Clinton, who tapped him to serve as ambassador to the United Nations.
    It was a position he used to launch himself onto the international stage as a peacemaker, deal-broker and regular on the Sunday morning political week-in-review shows.
    Less than two years later, he had been promoted from Cabinet-light to a full member of the Clinton team, heading the 110,000-employee Department of Energy.
    It was a place where Richardson finally could prove he knew how to manage an agency, and where he could continue to build his public profile.
    It was also an opportunity to work closely with Vice President Al Gore, whose interests in renewable energy and climate change meshed easily with Richardson's.
    Now it was 2000, a presidential election year. Gore was the Democrats' nominee, and Energy Secretary Richardson was on his short list as Gore decided on a running mate.
    Normally humdrum Energy Department events started attracting interested onlookers, with people wanting to get a look at the contender.
    More than one colleague shook Richardson's hand and playfully addressed him as Mr. Vice President.
    Then, Richardson's fortunes took an equally remarkable tumble.
    Within the span of a couple of months, a perfect storm of political black marks— the taint of the unraveling Wen Ho Lee nuclear spy case, a public flogging on Capitol Hill about another nuclear security breach at Los Alamos, and a tenuous connection to the poisonous name Monica Lewinsky— would knock Richardson out of contention for higher office.
    In late July, about a week before the party's vice presidential nod would go to Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Richardson talked to a New York Times reporter about his fall from grace.
    He put his chances of a vice presidential offer at "whatever is less than zero."
    "I believe in fate," Richardson told the Times. "I realize it's a decision based on a lot of factors that I can't control. I saw my name on lists. I was interviewed, but I never campaigned for it. Now that it's not going to happen, I can deal with it."
    Home at the U.N.
    Richardson was riding high in 1996. Passed over for a spot in Clinton's Cabinet four years earlier, he finally got the phone call he had been waiting for.
    Clinton asked him to take over as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, an opportunity Richardson relished and that just about everyone agreed was a perfect fit.
    As Richardson said at the time, "I joked to the president that I needed two seconds to think about it."
    The job, representing the United States in the 185-nation body, made him a member of the Cabinet, although he would report to the secretary of state as well as to Clinton. With Democrats no longer in control of the House, Congress wasn't as much fun for Richardson. And after years of freelance foreign missions as a member of Congress, he would now have a proper platform from which to engage in his first love: international affairs.
    Within two months, Richardson had been confirmed and resigned his seat in Congress. He and his wife, Barbara, had moved into the 42nd-floor penthouse at the Waldorf Towers in midtown Manhattan that serves as the ambassador's residence.
    He was an immediate sensation.
    "The U.N. just fell in love with him," said Nancy Soderberg, who served as one of Richardson's underambassadors in New York. "He was not the arrogant American coming up telling them what to do. He paid respect to them. He spoke Spanish with them. He went to have lunch in the cafeteria, which no one had ever done."
    Richardson roamed the halls, introduced himself to translators and cafeteria workers, spent time in the Delegates' Lounge and schmoozed.
    He'd been in the job less than four months when he invited members of the Security Council to a Yankees game and bought them hot dogs and baseball caps.
    He spent time with the ambassadors to nations usually ignored by the superpower.
    "He really and truly established a rapport with almost every ambassador that was there, even the groups that were sort of outlaws," said Isabelle Watkins, his administrative assistant and scheduler.
    "If they had representation at the U.N., they would meet with Bill. They would be invited to the residence. I had ambassadors tell me they had never been invited to the U.S. ambassador's residence and they had been there a long time."
    Jeffrey Laurenti, executive director of policy studies for the U.N. Association at the time, watched as Richardson used the same techniques he had used to build consensus in Congress and before that in fraternity house politics.
    "That political personality was actually quite winning, distinctive and much liked by other countries' representatives," Laurenti said. That was despite the differences in background and style. Most U.N. representatives had been smoothed in diplomatic finishing school, "which Bill Richardson definitely had not come from," Laurenti said.
    Once again, Richardson was benefiting from his dual background, part Mexican, part Anglo.
    "He can play in two worlds," Soderberg said. "He can play in both the fancy world of Washington very well, having been educated in boarding school, but he also can be a normal guy with blacks and Hispanics."
    Embracing the role
    Richardson's life at the United Nations was a whirlwind of foreign and domestic travel and official breakfasts, luncheons and dinners. His schedule usually began at 7 a.m. and often ended near midnight.
    While in New York, Richardson walked several times a day across First Avenue between his office and the U.N. building. He also shuttled several times a week between New York and Washington, D.C., for meetings at the State Department and the White House.
    In his usual weekly routine, Richardson flew on a shuttle from New York to Washington on Tuesday morning for a meeting with national security advisers in the White House Situation Room.
    He stayed at a suite at the Watergate Hotel on Tuesday night, attended a breakfast with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger at the White House on Wednesday morning, and returned to New York later that day.
    On Friday mornings, Richardson flew back to Washington for another Situation Room meeting in the afternoon.
    It was a hectic schedule— perfect for a workaholic.
    "I feel like I did when I was first elected to Congress," he said three weeks into the new post. "I'm excited. I'm invigorated. It's a new challenge."
    Then he joked, "I have to block out time to cut my toenails."
    Although he had been a globetrotter and a name in the Rolodex of talk show bookers while he was a member of Congress, Richardson stepped onto a bigger stage when he went to the United Nations.
    His travels now took him to Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
    When tensions in Iraq worsened and the U.N. Security Council pushed to keep its weapons inspectors there, Richardson became a frequent face on CNN and the Sunday morning talking-head shows.
    "He was always very interested in getting on the TV talk shows and in the press and media," said Peter Burleigh, who was tapped by Richardson as a deputy ambassador. "He continued to have political aspirations, and he wanted to maintain that public role."
    A clash of wills
    That public role, according to insiders, also caused friction with Albright, Richardson's boss and a strong woman who knew very well how a successful stint as ambassador could lead to a promotion: She had bounced directly from U.N. ambassador to secretary of state.
    "She and Bill are about as far apart in personality as any two people can be," said Richard Sklar, who served as a deputy ambassador for Richardson. "She's very precise and academic— and you know Bill. I'd think from a personality standpoint that there was clearly an incompatibility."
    David Goldwyn, Richardson's national security deputy at the United Nations, points to separate meetings Albright and Richardson had with the Japanese foreign minister to underscore their different styles.
    Shortly before Richardson took over, Albright met in Tokyo with the foreign minister, a heavy smoker, and in the course of their conversation advised him to quit smoking, Goldwyn said.
    Richardson, who had heard about Albright's smoking lecture, broke the ice at his first meeting in Tokyo by asking an aide for a cigar and inquiring of the minister, "Do you mind if I smoke?"
    Ambassador Burleigh said Albright and Richardson most often clashed over Richardson's independent streak.
    "Coming from Congress, he was much more accustomed to being his own person," Burleigh said. "There was a tension there. She tried to make sure that there were no communications she was not aware of. They occasionally had some words. But by and large, they came to agreement."
    Albright, for her part, denies any tension between the two.
    "We are very good friends," she said. "He is a great public servant and just a great guy."
    Richardson also was moving in prominent celebrity circles— as illustrated by a guest list for a dinner party he hosted in 1997 for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan: Caroline Kennedy, David Rockefeller and Geraldine Ferraro were among the political names. Hollywood was represented by Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte and Michael Douglas. Media heavyweights Tina Brown, then the editor of The New Yorker, and Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, were on the list.
    Just as Richardson refused to play button-down diplomat, he and his wife brought a more relaxed hospitality to the official residence, eschewing some of the stiff protocols of traditional guest lists and seating arrangements.
    "It was maverick in the diplomatic context," said Burleigh, the permanent deputy at the United Nations.
    Richardson's sister, Vesta, was at the table for one free-ranging dinner that went until 3 in the morning. Among the 16 guests were Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bette Midler, Bryant Gumbel, Tom Brokaw and the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez.
    Her brother, in standard form, kidded everyone regardless of stature.
    "Gabe," he teased the Nobel Prize-winning author, whose dark "One Hundred Years of Solitude" was an international best-seller, "Write something that's fun. You're really boring, really tragic."
    Comments like those— and his teasing demeanor with everyone from janitors to staffers to fellow ambassadors— made Richardson a likable oddity at the United Nations.
    On their first trip to visit him in New York, his mother, sister and nephews were picked up at the airport by a staffer and driven into Manhattan.
    As they chatted among themselves in the back seat, the driver kept peeking at them in the rearview mirror.
    Finally, he turned to look at them and said, "My God, I can't believe you're actually normal."
    Richardson's personality was a plus as he labored to maintain U.S. influence during a time Congress was pushing the United Nations for budgetary reforms and withholding dues to underline its point.
    Respect for the United States had fallen to a historic low in the world body as the U.S. debt climbed to $1 billion.
    Deputy Ambassador Sklar had been tapped to negotiate with Congress on the dues issue, trying to nudge members closer to paying up while Richardson and others placated U.N. members to keep the United States from losing its vote over the debt.
    Richardson was aware it was a problem that would not be solved immediately, Sklar said, but he took to the challenge with his politician's gusto.
    "Whatever I needed there— if I needed to bring people in to him, to have him lean on them, have him smile at them, entertain them— he would do it," Sklar said.
    The United Nations was monitoring rebel activity and a brewing civil war in Congo and making sure its weapons inspection teams remained in Iraq during Richardson's time there, but otherwise was not occupied with any high-profile global issues.
    "I hate to say it," Sklar said, "but it was a pedestrian time at the U.N."
    Richardson also went to Afghanistan while he was at the U.N. and spoke with members of the Taliban, asking them to hand over to the United States a then-much-lesser-known Osama bin Laden.
    Meet 'that woman'
    Early in the morning of Jan. 21, 1998, a then little-known blog called the Drudge Report broke a story that would make the white-collar Whitewater investigation a lot more interesting and make Monica Lewinsky a household name.
    The Drudge Report bulletin said, "Federal investigators are now in possession of intimate taped conversations of a former White House intern, age 23, discussing details of her alleged sexual relationship with President Clinton."
    The six-paragraph item went on to say Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr was involved because of information that "senior administration officials may have offered federal jobs to a young woman in an effort to prevent stories from going public— stories involving sexual episodes that allegedly occurred in a room off the Oval Office."
    The next sentence was the one that caused Richardson to rearrange his calendar for the day: "A breakfast meeting that took place at the Watergate Hotel has attracted the attention of investigators."
    By the end of the day, Richardson was linked publicly to the brewing scandal. His office issued a statement that afternoon confirming that Richardson had interviewed Lewinsky and offered her a job at the United Nations in New York doing public relations, which she declined.
    The statement said, "There was no pressure by any individual to hire her and nothing improper occurred."
    It failed to say Richardson considered Lewinsky at the request of high-level people in the Clinton White House. That would be exhaustively covered months later in a deposition Richardson gave in connection with Starr's investigation into whether the job offer was part of an effort to placate Lewinsky and buy her silence.
    Richardson's involvement started in the basement of the White House after meetings in mid-October 1997. According to Richardson's testimony, Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta took Richardson aside and asked if he would consider a friend of Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, for a job.
    How involved was the White House in the process after that? The independent counsel subpoenaed Richardson as it sought to determine whether Clinton broke the law— scheming to obstruct justice by helping Lewinsky at the time she would be a witness against him in the Paula Jones case.
    On April 30, 1998, Richardson testified for about four hours in the U.N. suite at the Watergate Hotel with his personal attorney at his side.
    Richardson testified he extended a routine courtesy to Currie and Podesta, whom he considered colleagues and friends.
    He said he liked Lewinsky's experience in the White House and the Defense Department and her demeanor in the interview. He said he offered her a job because she was qualified.
    He said repeatedly that he never spoke to Clinton nor to any Clinton associates about Lewinsky and had no idea she had a sexual relationship with the president.
    "I was not pressured. I feel very good about what we did. I make no apologies," he told the special prosecutor.
    As the Lewinsky scandal raged, Richardson was being considered to head the Department of Energy. He told federal prosecutors he first heard his name mentioned in connection with the department in early April when he read the rumor in The Washington Post.
    He was asked in his deposition whether he thought being given the secretary of Energy job could have any connection to his favorable testimony in the Lewinsky matter.
    "No," Richardson said. "There's no connection whatsoever. And it's never crossed my mind."
    He also made it clear he didn't think of the Energy Department job as much of a promotion.
    "In fact," Richardson said, "I don't see it as a job enhancement situation. I think I'm better-off where I am now."
    Two weeks later, Richardson was formally nominated to head the Energy Department, and in short order those words about being "better-off" would begin to look sadly prescient.
    Look who's in charge
    Richardson weathered some questioning about the Lewinsky job offer as he was confirmed by the Senate, but by August 1998 he was moving into new offices in the Forrestal Building in D.C.
    Energy was an entirely different animal from the United Nations or Congress. For the first time in his career, Richardson was the boss, not only one vote among hundreds.
    But he was inheriting an unruly agency that had become dispirited by a revolving door of bosses. Staffers had seen Hazel O'Leary, Federico Peña and now Richardson in the secretary's office in a span of 18 months.
    It was a chance for Richardson to step up into an executive position and perhaps find a springboard for higher political office, but it was also rife with possible land mines.
    "There are more creepy-crawlies at DOE because of the nuclear waste and the bombs and the security. There are a lot of things that can go wrong," said Melanie Kenderdine, a former Richardson congressional aide who was working at the Energy Department when Richardson arrived. "There's a lot of stuff lying around at the Department of Energy that'll get you."
    At the time, the agency had about 110,000 employees, but 100,000 of them were contract workers, like those at government-owned Sandia National Laboratories or Los Alamos National Laboratory, who answer to other bosses.
    "The secretary of energy has no even remote control over them," Kenderdine said. "It's a very tough thing to do, because you are held responsible for everything that goes wrong, but you have limited control over the contractors."
    Goldwyn, who followed Richardson to Energy from the United Nations as an assistant secretary, said the department was also "a real whipping boy for Congress— huge cuts, departments slashed, tremendous congressional intervention" along with "lawsuits, deaths— you know, things blew up."
    If Richardson was warned of the dangers, he wasn't dissuaded.
    "He came in and jumped in the pool with both feet," said his chief of staff, Gary Falle.
    Richardson told employees to stop worrying about what Congress wouldn't like or what would not play well politically, Goldwyn said.
    "His first message was, 'Get off your knees. We're not going to be intimidated,' '' Goldwyn said.
    A change of culture
    The department's staff had to adjust to a new style— inclusive and extremely busy.
    Kenderdine said she loaded Peña up with thick briefing books when he left the office in the evening, and he would have read them by the next morning.
    "Bill, you'd give him something more than a page and he'd shoot you," she said. "He's not a detail-oriented person. He relies on his staff for that."
    Many in the department loved the new order, in which they were given broad mandates and then allowed the freedom to work out the details.
    "He wanted to hear from the people who were running the programs, doing the jobs," Falle said. "He wanted to hear from scientists. He wanted to hear from the people doing the work, putting their reputations on the line."
    Richardson routinely called together 20 to 30 people representing different arms of the department to air ideas and get progress reports on issues.
    He also was the first secretary anyone could remember who used the employee gym in the Forrestal Building's basement. Richardson hit the gym early in the morning to work out and often abandoned the treadmill to visit with employees and listen to their concerns. He also implemented a monthly brown bag lunch for any employees who wanted to talk with him.
    "He likes to get everybody together and hear all the opinions," said Brian Costner, a former Richardson senior policy adviser. "He likes to be surrounded by people that take initiative and are willing to speak up, not necessarily to say what he might want to hear."
    James Werner had worked under Peña and O'Leary before Richardson came on board, and said he saw in Richardson a quickness to synthesize information and make a decision that "was a marvel to behold."
    "He'd listen to all these experts and absorb as much as he could, and I think he had an extraordinary ability of absorbing it and understanding it ... and he could just pick out what's important and say, 'OK, thank you very much, everybody, you've all made terrific, compelling presentations, and this is what we're going to do.' ''
    The workaholic hours and ambitious agenda he had developed in Congress were in full swing at Energy. Richardson loved the pace and reveled in his ability to make things happen, Falle said.
    "You could see the happiness on his face when he would come to me at the end of the day and say, 'Look what we accomplished today. We did a good job, didn't we, Gary?' ''
    Staffers who weren't quick enough or sharp enough got chewed out, an experience one of his senior advisers, Robert Gallagher, calls "ugly."
    Gallagher, who now heads the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said that Richardson was an excellent manager and a great guy, but that his temper could be brutal.
    "I can tell you, you don't want to be on one side of that," he said. "But on the other side, when it's over, it's over."
    Although Richardson quickly moved on after a chewing-out, the sting could linger.
    "I've always said Bill has a big dog house," Gallagher said. "And someone said, 'Well, how do you get out of it?' And I said, 'I don't think you ever get out through the front door. It just kind of gets so crowded that you kind of get pushed out under the back wall.' ''
    Visit to Oak Ridge
    Early on, Richardson decided he was going to go to every Energy Department facility and meet with employees to hear about programs and problems firsthand. "He loved to get there and meet the people, rather than look at it on paper," Falle said.
    Richardson had been at the helm for less than four months when he visited the department's uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and met with employees and former employees who had lung disease and other ailments they blamed on exposure at the plant.
    The workers were furious, especially because the government had classified their medical records, which prevented them from pursuing claims.
    David Michaels, an epidemiologist who had been chosen by Peña as assistant secretary for environment, safety and health, started at the department shortly after Richardson returned from Oak Ridge.
    On his first day on the job, Richardson told Michaels to go to Oak Ridge and meet with the workers.
    "Tell them I want to help them, and come back to me in 30 days with a plan," Richardson told him.
    Michaels proposed that Richardson acknowledge the Energy Department's long history of denying responsibility for workers' injuries and illnesses and put in place a system that evaluated damage claims using accepted standards of scientific review and guaranteed payments to anyone made sick by weapons lab work.
    It would require an overhaul in the government's attitude toward injured nuclear workers, cost a lot of money and require people at the top to apologize for past mistakes.
    Richardson lobbied Congress and was helped along in the arena of public opinion by a spate of newspaper investigations that uncovered a terrible record of safety, exposure and secrecy inside several of the nation's nuclear production plants.
    It was a hard sell in Congress because it would be expensive, and it was unpopular with the administration because it would cause pains for the departments of Labor and Justice.
    Richardson did his part by launching an unprecedented and comprehensive review of health studies of workers at nuclear weapons plants. The study found increased risk of illness and shortcomings in state workers' compensation programs that were the only recourse for ill workers.
    He also pushed the issue in speeches, at congressional hearings and in the media.
    After a Washington Post series revealed that employees of the department's uranium enrichment plant in Paducah, Ky., had been sickened by exposure to plutonium, Richardson agreed to appear at a town hall meeting about the safety lapses.
    When a hurricane closed airports along the Eastern Seaboard, Richardson arranged for the Virginia State Police to escort a caravan of Energy Department staffers to Roanoke, Va., where they could be met by an Energy Department airplane and make it to Paducah for the meeting.
    "On behalf the United States government," he told the people at Paducah, "I am here to say I am sorry."
    He told a House subcommittee, "The nation shares a shameful legacy of neglect."
    The legislation that took effect in 2001 covers more than half a million people who worked in nuclear weapons plants over decades. Workers who contracted cancer from radiation exposure or illnesses from exposure to toxic substances used in bomb production received $150,000 and medical benefits.
    Passage of the law was one of the prouder moments in Richardson's tenure at Energy, and it was a hard-fought victory.
    "I watched him take an issue that was very, very unpopular even in his own administration and push for it because he believed in it," Falle said. "A normal guy would have basically made the attempt because it was the right thing to do, run into the roadblocks and basically say, 'I did what I could; I couldn't get it done.' But he never gave up."
    'Kindred Spirit'
    By the time Richardson had moved into the ninth-floor secretary's office, an intelligence investigation with a code name, Kindred Spirit, was already two years old.
    It involved the apparent loss to China of design concepts of the United States' W88 nuclear warhead, information that put the Chinese on a quicker path to developing a long-range and powerful nuclear weapon.
    Richardson was briefed on the case, which was being investigated by the FBI. The case focused on Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the W88 was designed, and had a list of about a dozen suspects. Suspicion quickly zeroed in on the two Chinese-Americans on the list— Los Alamos computer scientist Wen Ho Lee, who had met with nuclear scientists on travels to China, and his wife, Sylvia, who had hosted Chinese delegations to Los Alamos.
    In response, Richardson reinstated a policy of performing background checks on foreign visitors to the labs and created a separate counterintelligence unit.
    It wouldn't be enough to stem the bad publicity that would follow.
    Well before Richardson joined the Energy Department, a congressional committee headed by Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., had been looking into campaign contributions from Chinese government sources to the Democratic National Committee during Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign as well as the administration's approval of the transfer of sensitive technology to China.
    When an Energy Department deputy testifying before the committee in late 1998 said the Chinese might be able to use high-performance computers supplied by the United States in combination with design secrets the Chinese had stolen from U.S. weapons laboratories, committee members were stunned.
    They had been tipped to an investigation into lost nuclear secrets— and they changed the focus of their investigation to nuclear espionage.
    Richardson had a problem. The Cox Committee was scheduled to finish its work and issue a report at the beginning of the year. He couldn't have the Cox Committee announcing that his office had been asleep at the switch.
    A Justice Department review would later turn up a memo from a special assistant recommending that Richardson fire Lee as a pre-emptive public relations strike, and a deposition from an FBI agent who said Richardson wanted to fire Lee fast, "regardless of whatever the FBI was doing.
    As Richardson was trying to figure out how to handle the brewing problem, news reports began to reveal the weapons lab mess.
    The story that made the biggest splash was on the front page of The New York Times on March 6, 1999. The special report was called "Breach at Los Alamos" and relied mostly on anonymous sources to lay out the case against a suspect identified only as "a Los Alamos computer scientist who is Chinese-American."
    It included for the first time in public the comment of an Energy Department investigator that the Los Alamos case was "going to be just as bad as the Rosenbergs," a reference to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, American citizens executed in 1953 for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.
    Although the Times would later back off from the report and issue an unusual mea culpa that said the newspaper hadn't followed its usual rigorous editing standards, the public relations damage was done.
    Two days after the Times report, Richardson ordered Lee fired.
    Richardson talked to reporters that day to announce and defend the firing. He said the employee, who had not been named or charged with a crime, had failed to disclose contacts with people from a sensitive country, hadn't safeguarded classified data and had tried to deceive lab officials about his security breaches.
    In May, the Cox Committee report was released to media fanfare and carried the ominous news that China had stolen designs "to the United States' most advanced thermonuclear weapons."
    Richardson made the rounds of TV news shows, trying to control the damage.
    On "Meet the Press," he reassured Tim Russert, "There is no evidence of a wholesale loss of information."
    But the blows kept coming.
    At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Alaska Republican Frank Murkowski said, "It's pretty hard to believe that any of our secrets are safe."
    In June, a panel commissioned by Clinton to examine security lapses at the labs issued a report that called the Energy Department "a dysfunctional bureaucracy that is incapable of reforming itself."
    It said the department's "organizational disarray, managerial neglect and a culture of arrogance" set the stage for a spy scandal.
    Lee was never charged with espionage. He would eventually be indicted on 59 counts related to copying classified information with the intent to harm the United States.
    With Lee in jail and new security measures in place, Richardson told Congress that security at the labs was back under control. Then along came another embarrassing lapse.
    The empty chair
    As the Cerro Grande fire roared out of the Jemez Mountains toward Los Alamos that May, an employee of the lab's Nuclear Emergency Search Team went to a secured vault to save computer hard drives that were loaded with sensitive information— designs of the nation's nuclear weapons labs. Two were missing.
    A search after the fire failed to turn them up, and employees waited a month before they reported the loss.
    On June 13, while the hard drives were still unaccounted-for, Richardson was invited to testify at a Senate committee hearing on security breaches at Los Alamos.
    Richardson skipped the hearing and was blasted by senators while TV cameras focused on his nameplate in front of an empty chair at the witness table.
    Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., addressed the empty chair and scolded, "Mr. Richardson, you should be here today, of all people." He went on to say Richardson should spend "more time trying to protect America's treasures and less time trying to get the vice president elected president."
    Then Murkowski chimed in: "What did the secretary know, when did he know it, and why isn't the secretary here to answer that question?"
    The C-SPAN feed gave the impression Richardson had made a rookie political blunder. Richardson had not blindsided the committee, his aides said. He had told committee members ahead of time that he would not sit for questions for which he had no answers.
    "We were at a point in time where there was really nothing that could be said," Falle said.
    The hard drives were found days later, concealed behind a copy machine at the lab. Now the Energy Department's tenuous grip on national security was fodder for political cartoonists and late-night TV comedians.
    A week after the empty-chair debacle, Richardson sat before the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and told them the little he knew about the hard drives— and explained why he had waited to talk to Congress.
    On the good-news side of the equation, Richardson said there was no evidence the drives had ever left the Los Alamos X Division or that espionage was involved in their disappearance.
    On the bad-news side, he said, security procedures weren't followed and people at the lab delayed three weeks in notifying in the Energy Department about the loss.
    "I am outraged at what has taken place," he said. "There are no excuses."
    Then Richardson sat for the worst public whipping of his career.
    Shelby, with the secretary seated before him now, told Richardson he should resign. "You've lost all credibility," he said.
    Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was even more brutal, lecturing Richardson as he sat at the witness table.
    "You've shown a contempt of Congress that borders on a supreme arrogance of this institution," he said.
    Then he told Richardson, in so many words, that he was dead on arrival if he ever was nominated again for a Cabinet post.
    "I think it's a rather sad story, because you've had a bright and brilliant career," Byrd said. "But you would never, you would never again receive the support of the Senate of the United States for any office to which you might be appointed. It's gone. You've squandered your treasure, and I'm sorry."
    Maya Seiden, who went to the Energy Department as a 22-year-old assistant, said Richardson seemed to bear up under the public relations disaster.
    "He's someone who rolls with the punches," she said.
    The evening of the Byrd hearing, Richardson was scheduled to meet with a group of teens visiting the Capitol to talk to them about the rewards of a career in public service, and to her surprise, he attended instead of going home to lick his wounds.
    She said he turned to her in the car on the way to the event and asked, "Are you OK?"
    The gesture surprised her: It was a question she might have posed to him.
    He and Barbara had dinner with a good friend, Washington lawyer Andrew Athy, at the Metropolitan Club that night.
    Although Richardson usually took his lumps and moved on, he felt especially banged around by Byrd, and it showed. He didn't talk about the day or complain about his treatment, Athy said, but "he was quiet, a little down."
    Richardson was glum for a couple of days, an uncharacteristic slump for someone accustomed to taking his hits and moving on.
    "Bill always made decisions and never second-guessed his decisions and never lost sleep over it," Kenderdine said. "I think the attack on him over the hard drives was the only time I saw him even remotely rattled by external criticism, and it was only for a couple of days."
    But, she said, "It was a tough couple of days."
    Several days later, Richardson presided over an already-scheduled meeting of senior staff members, who had no idea what to expect. "He came in and told a bunch of jokes, and after that he was fine," she said.
    Prize slips away
    In the midst of the hard drive debacle, Richardson continued to suffer public relations damage as the Wen Ho Lee case moved forward.
    June 8 was proclaimed by Lee's supporters "National Day of Outrage for Wen Ho Lee," with demonstrations in Albuquerque, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit and Salt Lake City.
    By then, Lee had been jailed in solitary confinement for six months, the case against him was looking thin, and allegations of racial profiling were mounting.
    Richardson was in contention for the No. 2 spot on the Democrats' presidential ticket, and it was slipping away.
    His friend Athy had helped him prepare the material he needed for the vetting process for Gore and for the interview with Warren Christopher, who was screening finalists.
    "I think he was on a list and the list was relatively short— maybe a half-dozen people," Athy said.
    Richardson was knocked out by a combination of problems at the Energy Department— lost weapons design data, missing hard drives and rising gasoline prices.
    Political observers at the time mentioned the connection to Lewinsky as another black mark.
    Whatever the reasons, his chances were dead.
    He told aide Rebecca Cooper, "I hope you weren't counting on me for an office in the White House."
    Can go home again
    Richardson was facing, for the first time in 20 years, a future without a campaign or a position in government.
    With only a few months until the end of the Clinton administration and his stint at the Energy Department, Richardson, who once joked he was the poorest member of the Cabinet, had to look for a job.
    As it turned out, he was good at making money.
    He became a senior managing director at Kissinger McLarty Associates, the international business consulting firm partly owned by his old boss, Henry Kissinger.
    He taught a course at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, served as an adviser to Armand Hammer United World College in New Mexico and got paying gigs at CNN, FOX News Channel and Telemundo.
    He also charged for speeches and got seats on numerous corporate boards.
    It was a furious spurt of employment, and by the end of the year, Richardson had cobbled together 23 sources of income.
    No one expected Richardson to stay in the private sector for long.
    "Certainly, politics is in my blood," Richardson had said in the summer of 2000 as his Energy Department days were winding down. "I have one or two more good races in me."
    The Richardsons had a house in Washington, and they had held onto their house in Santa Fe. The biggest rumor in New Mexico was that Richardson had designs on a house up the hill— the Governor's Mansion.

   

  • Read Part 4 of High Ambition: Richardson Eyes the White House