Richardson has knack for freeing hostages abroad Nominee for U.N. envoy also is Clinton loyalist with Hispanic roots

December 14, 1996|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Bill Richardson has long been expected to be named to President Clinton's Cabinet. But until recently, few would have predicted he would get a foreign policy slot.

Much of the resume that, Clinton said yesterday, qualifies the 49-year-old congressman to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been compiled since December 1994. It was then that Richardson helped negotiate the release of an American pilot who had been downed over North Korea. After his success there, Richardson went on to become a one-man rescue mission for hostages worldwide.

"I think that's how he's been able to convince the administration that he would be able to handle this kind of work," said Thomas A. Pickering, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration.

Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, the New York Republican who heads the House International Affairs Committee, said of the New Mexico Democrat: "He's been an ambassador without portfolio. Now we can get rid of the 'without.' He's done excellent work."

Traveling sometimes on his own and sometimes at the request of the administration, Richardson has spent much of the past two years as a global trouble-shooter, specializing in hostage negotiations.

Just last Sunday, he won the release of three Red Cross workers who had been held for five weeks by Sudanese rebels, who demanded $100 million in ransom. Richardson persuaded the rebels to release the workers in return for only 5 tons of rice, four jeeps, nine radios and a health survey.

Last month, Richardson secured the freedom of another American who had strayed illegally into North Korean territory.

In recent months, Richardson has also negotiated for the release of Americans held in Peru, Bangladesh and Cuba. Last year, he helped spring two Americans from an Iraqi prison. His work as an informal U.S. envoy has also taken him on missions to Thailand, Vietnam and Nigeria.

"As far as I'm concerned, the guy can raise the dead and walk on water," John Early, a Red Cross pilot who was rescued by Richardson from Sudan this week, told reporters after his release. "He's like a pit bull: he grabs hold your ankle, locks his jaw and you have to give in or be willing to carry him around on your ankle."

At the United Nations, Richardson's appointment, to succeed Madeleine K. Albright as U.S. ambassador, signals a willingness to "get beyond the rigid rules of diplomatic protocol" with someone who has proven he can "transcend some of the most difficult situations," said Jeffrey Laurenti of the United Nations Association of the United States.

Richardson's Hispanic background, his ties to Congress and his considerable personal charm are also viewed as valuable qualities, Laurenti said. "There is absolute elation here."

Some critics wondered whether Richardson's Hispanic background -- his mother was Mexican -- may have been too important a factor in Clinton's decision. The congressman had also been on the short list for a Cabinet job when Clinton first took office in 1993. But then, he was seen as a candidate for a domestic post, such as interior secretary.

"It seems like he was picked mostly to satisfy this domestic political constituency instead of for his views on foreign policy," said John R. Bolton, who served as an assistant secretary of state under former President George Bush. "I think his unique experiences of the past couple years are a plus, but if you connect the dots of all the places he's been, you still don't know what he thinks about the U.S. role in the world."

One policy area in which Richardson has openly differed with the administration, however, has been the embargo on trade with Cuba. He has strongly argued that the U.S.-led embargo should be lifted.

A rising leader in the House when it was controlled by Democrats, Richardson had been among Clinton's most valuable allies during the first two years of his presidency. As chief deputy whip in the House, Richardson cajoled his colleagues into supporting Clinton measures on crime and the budget.

When the two top House Democrats opposed Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, Richardson carried the ball himself -- working with Republicans to win narrow approval for an accord that was important to his New Mexican constituents.

Pub Date: 12/14/96

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