How Bill Richardson Became a Freelance International Hostage Negotiator, In His Own Words

Bill Richardson passed away on September 1 at the age of 75. He was a long-serving member of congress and governor of New Mexico, and former Secretary of Energy and US Ambassador to the United Nations. But his most lasting impact on international affairs was his freelance work as an international hostage negotiator. As a private citizen he’d travel to places like North Korea or Burma and sit face-to-face with some of the world’s nastiest dictators to secure the release of a foreigner wrongfully detained. He was a natural politician and had the unique ability to make personal connections awful dictators like Omar al Bashir or Saddam Hussein — and used that skill to good effect. (Both released hostages after meeting with Richardson.) “Bad people like him!” Bill Clinton once quipped.

In 2015, Bill Richardson joined me on the podcast for a long conversation about his work as a freelance diplomat who specialized in international hostage negotiations. At one point the conversation turned to the kinds of somewhat inappropriate jokes he’d crack as part of a deliberate negotiating strategy.

Bill Richardson: Well, when you enter negotiations with many of these dictators, they are stone faced. They they want to intimidate you. They want to get the upper hand. And sometimes injecting a little humor helps. Like in Egypt I met some members of the Mubarak regime and said, “All right! So is this where all the torture took place?! Where you took people’s fingernails out?!” And, you know, there’s a dead silence, but then they start laughing.

Mark Leon Goldberg: You said that to Omar Suleiman, right? The feared and famed right hand man of Mubarak.

Bill Richardson: Yeah, he kind of flinched at first, but then he started laughing. I did the same with a leader of a rebel group in the Sudan. I did the same with Fidel Castro.

This was a great interview, which kicked off with Bill Richardson explaining how his bi-cultural upbringing and early experiences as a member of congress in New Mexico prepared him for a second career in international hostage diplomacy. Rest in Peace.

I’ve moved that episode out from behind the paywall in tribute to Bill Richardson’s passing. Episode available here. 

Full archive of over 200 long-form interviews with foreign policy movers and shakers is available here.