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Nose-to-Nose With Bill Richardson

The close-talking candidate is auditioning for the part of the next Al Gore.

By 12.30.07

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Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire an Energy and Security Revolution
By Bill Richardson
(Wiley, 256 pages, $25.95)

Every ambitious politician believes that if he can only get a voter's complete attention, he can eventually win you over. Surely, the politician thinks, the brilliance of my agenda will become apparent if only I can make this numbskull listen.

Bill Richardson is a lot like that, only worse. He's the Democratic equivalent of an attention-starved puppy. He keeps jumping up at you, slobbering earnestness all over the place, making you want to say, "Down, boy!".

Lest you think I exaggerate, a story: Back in 2005 I interviewed Richardson while he was stumping for Tim Kaine's Virginia gubernatorial bid. After I asked him a question, Richardson stepped in so close to me to answer that our noses almost touched. He talked at length, right in my face, oblivious the sheer awkwardness of his close-talking.

I wanted to say something but he was providing me with plenty of quotes for my story, so I took notes and tried to imagine that I was somewhere else -- like a foot or so back.

For those of you who won't have the opportunity to go nose-to-nose with Richardson, he has published a campaign book, Leading by Example: How We Can Inspire an Energy and Security Revolution.

RICHARDSON'S OUGHT TO BE the exception to the general rule that campaign books must be awful. He is arguably the most qualified Democrat running to be president. He's been a congressman, governor, cabinet secretary, freelance diplomat, and ambassador to the U.N. Surely he has an interesting story to tell or some genuine insight into politics.

Apparently not. The book is staggeringly dull, enlivened only the author's rambling digressions. He's got a storehouse of Governor Schwarzenegger anecdotes and, by golly, he's going to tell every one of them.

In fact, the book is so bad that I'd be willing to bet that Richardson wrote it himself (or, more likely, dictated it). I'd be amazed to learn he actually hired a ghostwriter for this. Chapter two begins, "Ten years make a decade."

Slogging through this book is only for the most masochistic of political junkies. It's an updated Earth in the Balance, but without Al Gore's New Age philosophizing and Nazi analogies. Instead it features a relentlessly upbeat We-Can-Do-It! message.

After warning us that "the world's climate is starting to change around us … The results could be Earth-changing," Richardson reassures us that "I am not only confident in our nation's ability to address this energy challenge, I am also fully optimistic about it."

His enthusiasm is the best explanation for the book's clumsy writing. He was so excited to talk about energy policy he apparently had no time to re-read his own manuscript. If he did he might have deleted passages like this one: "I had no idea I would end up running the Department of Energy during perhaps the most volatile, up-and-down period for oil prices in world history."

Throughout the book he steps on his own message in bewildering ways. In one chapter he discusses his commitment to the little people by touting his efforts on behalf of the Navajo Nation. At their request, he got Highway 666 renamed the less-Satanic Highway 491.

Then he recounts how he opposed as governor the building of a major coal-generating plant on a reservation that would have provided the Navajos with much-needed jobs. Even after the okay from labor unions and the EPA, he put the kibosh to the project. It would hurt the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, so he said no -- tribal sovereignty be damned.

So he's for token measures like changing signs. Actual jobs for the Navajos? Let's not get carried away.

IN THE TRUE SPIRIT of every candidate seeking office, Richardson blames every problem on the guy whose job he wants: "I particularly fault the president and Congress for their failure to act responsibly in recent years."

Others are absolved: "The American people don't need or deserve a scolding." Really? Doesn't the fact that American voters elected those leaders mean that we share some responsibility?

Richardson is a firm believer in new technology to provide solutions. "No one's geeks are smarter than ours," he says.

Not smart enough, apparently, because, he argues that Americans will still need "to make some sacrifices to break our dependence on oil." The book pushes for mandating higher energy efficiency, expansion of alternative sources, and regulations and taxes against polluting too much.

He grants the occasional exception to this rule, though: "I personally like a sport utility vehicle. I'm a big guy and I don't fit really well in smaller cars. I usually travel with security agents and staff. For a while we used the largest hybrid we could find, an Escape that Ford executives bent over backward to get for me in a tight market a few years ago."

Unfortunately, that vehicle "turned out to be too small for me, my state security staff, and for one or two of my people, so now we use larger SUVs that can hold more people."

To lighten the mood he tells amusing anecdotes about his career in politics. There was the time he was invited to take a test drive of a new $3 million prototype Toyota hydrogen fuel vehicle. With the media invited to watch, Richardson accidentally went the wrong way down a one-way street.

"There's a metaphor in there," Richardson says. "It would be all too easy for our political leaders to take us in the wrong direction." Noted.

I SHOULDN'T BE too hard on Richardson. He is genuinely concerned about energy issues and occasionally willing to break with liberal orthodoxy. He touts nuclear power, because it doesn't add to carbon pollution.

But other times one wonders how hard he has thought about policy. Discussing the 2000 energy crisis in western states, he says, "I was surprised by the economists' general view that the market should be allowed to perform and correct itself."

The book concludes with the chapter "2020 Vision." Richardson pictures a world magically transformed by his policies. Energy efficiency soars while energy prices fall. Carbon levels in the atmosphere drop while alternative energy investments actually pay for themselves. Oil dependence becomes a thing of the past. America is loved and admired again as other countries follow in our greentastic path.

In his utopia, "You feel better about yourself. Your church is full of talk of stewardship enacted, not stewardship envisioned."

Even better, "You feel like a moral person -- someone who cares about our planet and helps protect it."

As I write this, Richardson is in the low single digits in polls both nationally and in the key primary states. It's tempting to dismiss Leading by Example as a pipe dream.

Then again, Richardson is often touted as a vice presidential pick. He may yet get the opportunity to get in our faces about his vision for many years to come.

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About the Author

Sean Higgins is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.