01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bill Richardson, Suited for Hillary's Role, Named Secretary of Commerce

CHICAGO -- If only Bill Richardson, a very skillful high-stakes negotiator, could rescue Wall Street, Detroit, the credit markets or our international image, rather than be consigned partly to making sure American Idol will be broadcast digitally.

But there he was Wednesday, clean shaven and nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to be Secretary of Commerce, not Secretary of State. As the announcement was being made, the Commerce website greeted visitors with a big, orange box declaring, "76 DAYS UNTIL THE DIGITAL TELEVISION TRANSITION. ARE YOU READY?"

For sure, the website also brought word of the current Secretary of Commerce -- quick, what's his name? -- "reiterating the administration's belief in the importance of America's auto industry." And, too, there were announcements both that archaeologists have identified the wreck of an historic slave ship off the coast of East Caicos and that the National Institute of Standards and Technology held a test of rescue robots in Texas "to help evaluate candidate mechanical rescuers."

So, despite Obama's surely sincere underscoring of the Commerce position's significance, it was unavoidable to see Richardson, one of the more idiosyncratic individuals in American politics, as having had political courage rewarded with oversight of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His undoubted preference to run the State Department was cemented by his nervy support of Obama, and the simultaneous bashing he incurred from then-candidate Hillary Clinton's supporters.

But the decision succumbed in part to the "team of rivals" logic underlying the selection of Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose chum James Carville had called Richardson a "Judas" for the Obama endorsement. And it succumbed to all the rationales for the Clinton pick: her intelligence, experience, global celebrity, discretion and discipline.

Putting aside the one possible wild card, namely Bill Clinton hovering overhead for the next four years, it's very much a safe pick for rank-and-file Foreign Service personnel, to whom she represents competence and clout.

(O.K., time's up: the name of the current Secretary of Commerce is Carlos Gutierrez)

Richardson would have been high-risk, if possibly high-reward. The risk is a reputation for being too much the freelancer; inattentive to detail; and not exhibiting a Herculean work ethic. To the extent he had a reputation among diplomacy pros when he was Bill Clinton's United Nations Ambassador, it was a mixed one, partly due to an image of not doing a lot of the pedestrian heavy-lifting.

Yet, to use a term famously employed once by then-United Nations Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who was upset with the Cubans, Richardson does have cojones. That might have been part of the reward.

The New Mexico governor, and former congressman and Energy Secretary, bargained the release of three Red Cross workers held by Marxist rebels in Sudan 12 years ago. Two years ago, he bargained the release from a Sudanese prison of my then-Chicago Tribune colleague, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent Paul Salopek, Paul's Chadian driver and interpreter.

I'll spare you the details, but Richardson was a marvel in the Tribune mess. The newspaper and National Geographic magazine, for whom Salopek was doing freelance work when detained, had tried virtually everything and everyone. We tried former President Carter. We tried Bono. We tried Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Nothing worked.

Then, somebody thought of Richardson (Salopek lives in New Mexico). He flew to Khartoum and used immense personal skills to cut a deal with a very bad guy, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.

"I have nothing but respect for Bill Richardson. Not just because of the obvious: He got me out of prison. But because he argued with al-Bashir and also got my two African colleagues out of prison -- a Chadian driver and a Sudanese interpreter," Salopek said Wednesday. "He didn't have to do that. That wasn't in his brief. But he said he wouldn't leave without them being freed. That makes him a terrific guy in my book."

Of course, freeing a reporter, driver and interpreter does not translate into solving the Middle East mess or curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. What worked with al-Bashir might not work with the abundance of awful folks in charge of sovereign nations. But it would have added a very provocative element to the unequivocally solid, mainstream picks so far for the Obama cabinet.

Obama called him an "economic diplomat" and framed the selection as one to boost small business, science, entrepreneurship and innovation. And when one heard Richardson speak Spanish on Wednesday, one was reminded of how uncommon the governor is in our public life. Hey, just imagine if Obama had pulled off a true masterstroke in a wickedly competitive international economy, namely finding a Commerce Secretary who could speak Chinese!

When foreign citizens respect our leadership, Obama said, they're more likely to buy our products. That may be true, but one can worry that we're in a world in which price trumps prestige for the average consumer. Not many customers will walk out of a Wal-mart in Michigan, or an Aldi discount grocery in Germany, because the Chinese record on civil liberties is so notorious.

Maybe the Commerce Secretary will now morph into what Obama described as the "programmatic nerve center in America's struggle to rejuvenate our economy."

And maybe the Commerce Secretary indeed will be in the forefront of innovation, as Obama declared Wednesday. One suspects, however, that if Obama is truly serious about innovation and longterm economic renewal, the Commerce Department should be trailing the Education Department on a list of priorities, largely given our mess of a public schools system.

Clinton may prove masterful at State, Richardson at Commerce. Let's hope so. If that's the case, the adroit Mechanic and the intrepid Artist will have found their correct resting places.