SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Bill Clinton paid homage at a funeral mass Thursday to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as a groundbreaking Latino politician and unorthodox master diplomat who could coax good things out of dictators and despots.
Richardson served as the United States' ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary under the former president, who described his unique trust in Richardson on the international stage and as a custodian of national security and nuclear weapons labs, including facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
“The bad guys liked him. But there’s a reason for that,” said Clinton, describing an early mission by Richardson as U.N. ambassador to encourage a democratic transition of power in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "If you scratch hard enough and long enough on anybody, there’s almost always still a person down there somewhere. ... He may be twisted beyond untwisting. But once in a while, they do the right thing anyway. Bill Richardson knew that.”
Richardson died in his sleep at his home in Chatham, Massachusetts, earlier this month at age 75.
Political allies, Native American leaders and people touched by Richardson's work to free Americans imprisoned abroad gathered in Santa Fe's downtown Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi to honor a man known for his innate political skills, soaring ambition and ability to both clash and reconcile with rivals.
Clinton walked hand-on-hand with Richardson’s widow, Barbara, following the casket into cathedral and back out again. Relatives of some of the political prisoners whom Richardson sought to free as well as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland were also in attendance.
Richardson's friendship with Clinton endured, despite having a falling out after Richardson dropped out of the 2008 presidential race and endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton.
The Clintons expressed their sadness after learning of Richardson's death earlier this month, and Bill Clinton on Thursday alluded to two “big fights” with Richardson that were reconciled with apologies and forgiveness.
“That’s what real people try to do with their lives. Nobody is perfect,” Clinton told a cathedral filled with hundreds of mourners.
Clinton during Thursday's service reiterated his appreciation for Richardson's informal methods of diplomacy. He described Richardson as big and hulky with a good sense of humor and someone who didn’t mind being politically incorrect from time to time.
“His energy was infectious. His skills were prodigious. His life was a gift, and I’m so glad that, each in our different ways, we received it,” Clinton said. “Now I ask you to go out of here and try to improve on his example. He would like it if you were trying.”
Richardson throughout his career and after leaving public office was tapped for numerous unofficial diplomatic missions, using his knack for negotiation to free many Americans held hostage abroad.
Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester said faith was important to Richardson, recalling a story about a crucifix Richardson wore around his neck — a gift from his grandmother who lived in Mexico. Fearing that he would lose it during a baseball game, he had stashed it in his back pocket and it became lodged in his leg after he slid into second base. Richardson joked that it was a sign that his grandmother had embedded the faith deep in him — literally.
It was that faith that helped Richardson through his interactions with world leaders and others, Wester said, suggesting that Richardson's life paralleled that of the Good Samaritan in biblical stories. He said Richardson shook hands not out of duty but rather because he enjoyed meeting and getting along with people.
“Saint John of the Cross had a wonderful insight when he said that in the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone," Wester said. "This is the message of the cross, the message of the Good Samaritan, the message of Gov. Richardson’s life — love one another, take risks for one another and have compassion for one another.”
The line to enter the historic cathedral stretched around the building as hundreds filed inside, from members of New Mexico's congressional delegation to tribal governors and dignitaries from around the globe.
Hundreds also turned out Wednesday as Richardson's casket laid in state in the Capitol’s rotunda. An arrangement of white roses sent by President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden was joined by flowers from others who were there to remember the work he had done for the state.
Richardson served two terms as governor starting in 2003. His casket was flanked by a police guard and draped in the New Mexico state flag with its ancient Zia Pueblo symbol of the sun.
The memorial services have reunited top advisers and Cabinet secretaries to Richardson in his years as governor, which were marked by splashy employment and public works projects — the creation of a commuter rail line connecting Santa Fe with Albuquerque, an aerospace “spaceport” launch facility, and generous incentives to attract film productions to New Mexico in the era before “Breaking Bad.”
Richardson enacted initiatives with a Democratic-led Legislature that put an end to the death penalty in the state, eliminated sales taxes on medicine and food in efforts to combat poverty, and renewed rights to collective bargaining by government workers that had expired under his Republican predecessor.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.
Morgan Lee, The Associated Press