Voice of Reason

updated 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WITH JUST 45 MINUTES TO GET from Dulles International Airport to a critical vote on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bill Richardson can't be bothered with rush-hour traffic—or the rules of the road. At his insistence, the government van in which he's riding races through suburban Virginia, then screeches through a U-turn across three lanes of oncoming cars near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. "Just run the red lights—RUN THEM!" he shouts to the driver. "Can't you go any faster?"

Of course, nobody would fault Richardson for missing the vote. After all, he has just flown in from the Middle East after persuading Iraq's Saddam Hussein to free American engineers David Daliberti and Bill Barloon, who have spent 114 days in jail after mistakenly crossing into Iraq from Kuwait. And in just a few hours he is due at the White House for a congratulatory meeting with pal Bill Clinton.

But then, the 47-year-old New Mexico Democrat has never been one to slow down. In the past 17 months he has pressured the Burmese government for the release of Nobel Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, helped convince Haitian military ruler Raoul Cedras to resign from power and won the freedom of U.S. Army helicopter pilot Bobby Hall after Hall was shot down over North Korea last December. "Bill Richardson is like a diplomatic Red Adair, the guy who was called to put out all the oil-well fires," says White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos. "He's a skilled negotiator. He sits there and listens, and people trust him."

Although some accuse him of cutting deals for Clinton, others believe Richardson's success comes from having the President's ear while not technically working for him. "Richardson provides a back channel when nations want to deal with each other and have deniability," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at Washington's Brookings Institution.

Religiously informal—he's known for his tousled hair and rumpled shirts—Richardson feels there's no secret to his negotiating skills. "I just get along good with people," he says.

Not that the course of diplomacy always runs smooth. When Richardson flew to Baghdad to meet Saddam on July 16, the meeting got off to an unfortunate start. "After opening statements, Saddam got up and left the room," recalls Richardson. "His interpreter told me, 'The president did not appreciate you crossing your legs. It is a sign of disrespect in Arab cultures.' "

But, as it happened, the Iraqi president liked the Acoma Pueblo pottery Richardson brought him from New Mexico (he sent Richardson a huge Iraqi pot and a robe in return) and was also in a mood to negotiate. "He genuinely wants to see if he can coax us into softening the United Nations embargo, which I don't favor," says Richardson. By the end of their 90-minute meeting, Saddam had freed the men—and invited Richardson to visit again. "We connected because I was honest and tough," says Richardson. "I didn't apologize, even when I crossed my legs."

The only son of William Richardson, a Citibank executive who died in 1972, and Maria Luisa Zubiran, a homemaker, Richardson was born in Pasadena, Calif., but spent his childhood in his mother's native Mexico City. (His sister, Vesta, 39, is now a physician in Boston.) The star pitcher on his Connecticut prep school baseball team, he was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1967. But at his father's urging, he went on to major in political science at Tufts University. "That was a major disappointment in my life, not playing major league baseball," he concedes. "But one year later my elbow went out, and I was washed up as a pitcher. So I guess I made the right choice."

Richardson went on to earn a master's from Tufts's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. After staff jobs with both the State Department and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he moved to New Mexico in 1978 where he worked as a trade consultant. Four years later he was back on the Hill—this time as an elected congressman with a reputation for overachiev-ing, even in the area of relaxation. "He doesn't just go to one movie; he'll sit down and figure out three of them to see on a weekend afternoon," says his wife, Barbara, 46, an antiques restorer, whom he married in 1972. "Sly Stallone, Die Hard, he likes all that action."

Weekdays, Richardson tumbles out of bed at 6 a.m. to practice with his congressional baseball team (he plays third base) and seldom returns to the couple's three-story brick home in northwest Washington before 10 p.m. "I'll fix a nice dinner and we'll just talk," says Barbara. "Then he'll head upstairs to smoke a cigar and watch TV to relax."

Though he is being touted for higher office, Richardson says that, for now, he's concentrating on prizes he has already won. "When I looked into the faces of those two Americans in Baghdad, that was my reward," he says. "I want to remember all this. I'll rest up a while and then see what's ahead."

JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, with bureau reports

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