The Many Times Bill Richardson Fired Me

Bill Richardson and I on Valentine’s Day 2015. He was passing through Chicago, so we had an impromptu Valentine’s Dinner together, which was pretty much how he operated all the time.

The first time I met Bill Richardson he fired me.

For almost a year I’d been scheduler to the Secretary of Energy, a job that mainly entailed telling lots of important people “no”, and then writing up a flawless, printed daily schedule at the end of the day, which was usually around 7:00 p.m. 

Federico Peña was the Secretary when I started. A moderate, former mayor of Denver, and even keeled man to a fault, he insisted on flying coach, riding in the front seat of his government Town Car, and required he be home by 6:30 p.m. as many nights as possible so he could be home with his wife and infant son. Despite ending work at 7:00 p.m., for those of us in D.C. who labored to keep the work of the “big names” going in D.C., it was considered easy work. 

But I managed to keep getting myself into trouble in the universe of Peña The Moderate, because I did things like snidely telling an Army general that dressing me down wasn’t going to get him in a meeting, or chatting up the Secretary’s in-house chef (yes, the Energy Secretary has one of those) to slip me some warm cookies when those were reserved for people two or three stations above me.

Nothing big, but in Peña world, I was a Troublemaker and it felt like I was always on the verge of getting kicked to the curb.

Tired of six rollicking years of being in President Bill Clinton’s cabinet, Peña resigned from the Department of Energy in the Spring of 1999. A few weeks later we got the word: U.N. Ambassador and former Congressman Bill Richardson would be our new boss. We were political staff, so we gleaned our contacts for intelligence: Richardson was known as a brilliant globetrotter, a little bit grumpy, someone who enjoyed cigars, fine hotels, and late nights, demanding and unorthodox. He also already had a staff at the U.N., and that job came with a limousine, a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, and government jets for overseas travel – all of which Richardson was said to exploit gregariously. In short: Totally unlike Peña.

This was bad news for me, since I was already the odd man out among the Peña crew, and while I had a few connections in the White House to help me out, Richardson already had a team. Two strikes. I was sure I was a goner.

Before he came in, the senior Department staff spent weeks preparing briefing books for Richardson and a small group of transition staff he brought with him. The transition team held meetings with senior staff (I was considered very junior), and it was clear there would be some staff shuffles, most likely for jobs like mine that handled his personal politics. But then I learned he would interview the entire secretarial staff, including me, before he made any decisions.

I threw everything I could into getting intel on the meetings. Fortunately, as scheduler, I’d made good friends with the Department’s security detail, who stood outside the room for every meeting, opening and closing doors. Hey, guys: What’s he like? Do I have a chance?

“He’s clearly tough, and there’s been some tough meetings,” said one guy, which did not make me feel better. “He’s a prankster,” said another guy. Considering the tension of the moment, this bewildered me.

Finally, I was called to the Secretary’s conference room. One of the security staff stood outside the door. “Be careful. He’s firing people today,” he said. And then winked at me. 

Door opened. Richardson, a large man, occupied what seemed all of the room. One of his transition staff sat at the table and asked me to sit down as Richardson greeted me.

The big man asked me about how I’d been doing my job, and if I liked it. Being the idiot I was, I told him something along the lines of, “I like the job, but I hope to do more someday.” 

He paused and took this in, asked me a few perfunctory questions, and then thanked and dismissed me. Then, as I got up, he gravely said, “Oh, and you’re fired.”

I froze in place, and within a second, he started giggling, looking over at the transition staffer and busting into a full laugh. “Did you see his face? No, you’re not fired, Mike. You’ve got the job, and we’ll see if we can get something better for you down the line.”

The door opened, and the security staffer was laughing too. I’m sure I was visibly shaken. “He got you, didn’t he? Yeah, he’s a prankster. Get ready for a ride.”

This was life with Bill Richardson. He valued above all, truth telling, but also liked to keep people off balance. For instance, the time we spent hours prepping him for a meeting with touchy nuclear scientists brought over from Russia. Then, as us staff stood in the back, he gave a presentation in front of said scientists, gesturing to items on the front board while pointing with his middle finger. The entire time he looked past the scientists and dead into our, his staffers’, eyes. Later, after the successful meeting, he leaned into a staff huddle and giggled, “Did you see that I was flipping you off before? Because that’s what I was doing. Do you think the scientists noticed?”

For months after he became Secretary, “You’re fired,” was his catchphrase. I’d give him a five minute briefing, and then after leaving, he’d say, “Thanks, Kevin. Oh, and you’re fired.”

The Kevin part? He also had special names for each of his personal staff. He knew our actual names, but dreamed up what he thought were more appropriate names. Mine was Kevin. 

“You look like a Kevin. Doesn’t he look like a Kevin? That’s what you look like. That’s your new name now.”

The Department of Energy is massive. At the time it had about 60,000 employees and probably another 100,000 contractors. It leads national energy policy, but also funds and operates the nation’s basic science research, maintains the national nuclear stockpile, but also dabbles in some international diplomacy, some undercover operations, and plenty of relationship management with the world’s biggest energy producers. 

From what I learned, most Energy Secretaries run the politics of the agency from their comfy D.C. office across from the Smithsonian Castle with a driver and private chef. In contrast, Richardson saw the sprawling agency as an opportunity to travel. As his scheduler, and sometimes advance person, this meant a lot less sleep. I kept my work cell phone – a rarity in the late 90’s – close to my bedside, as 3:00 a.m. phone calls from Richardson about his schedule were common. 

“Kevin! What’s my schedule next Wednesday like? And what time is it there?” he’d bruskly ask, not actually caring what time it was. He ran on rocket fuel while travelling, and barely slept.

“I think better when I’m travelling,” he told me once while we waited for a flight in an empty VIP holding room at some airport somewhere. “The moving keeps my head clear.”

And move he did. One cross country trip we scheduled began with a 7:00 a.m. breakfast with utility CEOs in Connecticut, then hopscotched across time zones in a private jet, landing in each for successive meetings with local groups of corporate leaders. By the time we got to Sacramento that night, everyone was wrung out, except him. We all staggered to the hotel, and he ended the night with, “Hey, good job, Mike. Don’t forget to wake me up at 6:45 a.m. tomorrow,” with a wink. He knew this meant I would be up an hour earlier than him, prepping, which always started with some specific informational demand requiring either fast thinking, or a mad scramble to find whatever he wanted to know.

Run, run, run. Working for Bill Richardson was exhausting. It made me irritable sometimes, and with that came too much truth telling for a boss.

“Sir, you’ve never worked for someone have you?” I asked him once while riding in a black SUV somewhere. Everyone else in the car froze.

“Well, you could say I work for the President,” he ambled back.

“That doesn’t count. It’s not easy for us sometimes,” my stupid brain made me say.

Everyone else held their breath. Richardson said nothing, and looked away. Later that evening his deputy chief of staff reprimanded me. “That was out of place, and not your station. You need to watch yourself. Next time you won’t be travelling anymore.”

Somehow, I remained a Troublemaker with Richardson, which I think he liked, as aggravating as I could be. 

Once, I was leaving a trip, as he stayed on a plane, heading off to another stop. Richardson and his deputy chief of staff were seated in first class, as I walked off, saying my goodbyes.

“Mike! Hold on. I want to ask you something: I want you to be my body man. What do you think of that?” 

I looked over to his deputy chief, who’s eyes had gone wide. She had told me that he was going to ask me for the job, but had also told me that I was to say no. She didn’t want me in the job – which frankly would have been a plum spot. A chance to be with the Master at all times, but also becoming a barrier between him and everyone else, including the deputy chief.  She and I would have been at odds at all times, and she was a professional political knife fighter. I would eventually get stabbed in the back, for sure.

Looking over at his staffer he said, “Don’t worry about her. How about it?”

I thought fast. I was burned out from my current job as scheduler, which meant getting yelled at by unhappy three-star generals almost every day. I needed something new.

“I want a policy job. I want to help run policy in the department,” I blurted out in the first class aisle as the coach passengers waited to leave.”

“Yeah? That’s what you want? I’ll see what I can do, then.”

I waved goodbye, his deputy chief visibly relieved. Then walked off the plane, shaking. Advancement had never presented itself this way before.

A few weeks later, I got word: the Secretary wanted me in his office. Down the hall, I walked. Up to the desk outside his office, his executive assistant smiled and waved me through the door. Richardson was sprawled on a couch, collar undone, his deputy chief sat primly with a bundle of papers in her lap.

“OK, Mike. We’re giving you a promotion. You’re going to the Policy office to help run it. What do you think of that? It’s what you wanted, right?”

Yes. I blurted. It’s what I wanted. Thank you!

“You’re sure, right? You can still be my body man if you want,” he looked slyly over to his deputy chief, who was wide eyed again. “Of course, she doesn’t really like that.”

No, sir. The policy office would be great. 

“Perfect. I expect to keep seeing you after you go down there.”

And that was it. I was out of the constant, burning glare of Richardson’s person, off to a whole other adventure. As I left his office he stopped me.

“And Kevin, one more thing: You’re fired.”

Rest in peace Mr. Secretary. I’ll never work for someone as cool, as fun, as smart as you.