When Bill Richardson was named U.S. ambassador here after 13 years as a member of Congress from New Mexico, he liked to tell reporters that the U.N. and the House of Representatives had a lot in common.
"The United Nations is a parliamentary body, just like Congress is a parliamentary body, and in a parliamentary body, you can't make personal enemies," he would say. "You have to fight someone one day, and then the next day you'll need his vote."
The implication was that the skills that had earned him a successful career as a lawmaker would transfer easily to the world forum.
But during his 16 months on the job, it has not always worked out that way.
Richardson, who will be leaving the U.N. to become Energy secretary after Senate confirmation, has been personally popular among his fellow delegates. But unlike members of Congress, who are fairly free to follow their own instincts and interests when voting legislation, diplomats at the U.N. are very much the agents of their national capitals. And so the personal relationships and vote brokering that are crucial on Capitol Hill do not count for as much along the East River.
Richardson, for example, spent considerable time cultivating a rapport with Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov. They made joint speaking engagements, socialized a bit, and when Richardson invited the entire Security Council membership to a Yankees-Mets game last season, Lavrov got the seat next to him.
That personal relationship sometimes helped smooth over differences between the two countries, but in the end it did not prevent Lavrov from becoming Richardson's most articulate and indefatigable foe on the issue of how to deal with Iraq's refusal to fully cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. No matter how much Lavrov may like Richardson, his orders come from Moscow, and he follows them.
Similarly, according to diplomats here, Richardson sometimes seemed constrained in debate, rarely straying from the carefully scripted "talking points" he carried in from Washington.
One result is that during free-spoken Security Council discussions on Iraq, it was British Ambassador John Weston, not Richardson, who generally rose to counter Lavrov's pro-Iraqi arguments.
Richardson bristles at suggestions that he was in any way restricted by the State Department in his dealings here and notes that virtually every diplomat at the U.N. relies on written instructions from time to time. Moreover, as one of President Clinton's top four foreign policy advisors--the others are Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen--he said he often helped write those "talking points."
In a forum dominated by cautious, often colorless professional diplomats, however, Richardson stood out for his unbuttoned personality, sense of humor and unpretentiousness. He often ate in the staff cafeteria rather than the official delegates' dining room, and as word spread Thursday that he would be leaving, he was repeatedly stopped in the hallways by security guards, electricians and other workers wishing him well.
Other delegates appreciated his willingness to listen to all sides of an issue, his tendency, as he put it Thursday, to "use persuasion, not confrontation."
"He has a capacity to see other people's point of view without losing sight of the view of the United States," Brazilian Ambassador Celso L.N. Amorim said in an interview.
"He has principles and positions, but he's not dogmatic."
And if Richardson's main personal agenda was to improve his national visibility--he does little to disguise his desire to be Al Gore's running mate on the 2000 Democratic ticket--he was successful. He's gone from being a member of Congress prominent in Western and Latino political circles to appearing as a semi-regular on the national political talk-show circuit.
He will not be able to match that kind of profile as Energy secretary, which may be one reason he was somewhat reluctant to switch jobs. In compensation, Richardson figures to get more "face time" with the president and a freer hand to campaign for Democratic candidates in this year's congressional elections, which could earn him political markers that he can cash in someday.
The most persistent criticism of Richardson, here and in Washington, is that he was too interested in short-term appearances and political fallout and not interested enough in long-range implications, although many officials make the same complaint about the Clinton administration's foreign policy in general.
"It's a hologram kind of policy," grumbled one Republican source on Capitol Hill. "They seem to be very concerned about how things appear, but not at all about the substance."
Another, Democratic source in Congress said: "Richardson doesn't like the nuts-and-bolts part of the job; he likes the 'funsy' part of it."
For Richardson, the "funsy part" of the job has been his frequent overseas trouble-shooting missions. He has visited 43 countries since taking the job, often on marathon intercontinental journeys that exhausted his staff but seemed to energize the 50-year-old ambassador.
Richardson was given credit for lining up some foreign support for possible military action against Iraq, for becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Afghanistan since 1974 and with helping arrange the first face-to-face meeting between then-Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko and the man who eventually overthrew Mobutu, Laurent Kabila.
But Kabila also reneged on an agreement with Richardson to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into human rights abuses in the renamed Congo, and a Richardson-brokered peace conference between warring factions in Afghanistan broke down after a few meetings.
Richardson will also bequeath to his successor, Richard Holbrooke, the diplomatic damage created by the $1.5-billion U.S. debt to the U.N., an issue that continues to deadlock Congress and the administration and could lead to the embarrassment of the United States losing its vote in the General Assembly in January.
Being unable to resolve the dues issue, Richardson said Thursday, has been his biggest frustration.
"The result," he said, "is the U.S. loses its credibility, it loses clout, and it loses moral stature."