How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator

How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator

by Bill Richardson, Kevin Bleyer


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623360573
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bill Richardson is a two-term governor of New Mexico, former US ambassador to the UN, and former secretary of the Department of Energy. He spent 15 years in Congress and has successfully won the release of hostages, American servicemen, and prisoners in North Korea, Iraq, Cuba, and Sudan.
Kevin Bleyer was an Emmy Award–winning writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and author of Me the People: One Man's Quest to Rewrite the Constitution of the United States of America.

Read an Excerpt

The Clintons:



Rookie mistake.

The first offer is rarely the best offer—that's Negotiation 101. As my father told me a thousand times—in terms I, a baseball fanatic, could certainly understand—never swing at the first pitch. But you swung. That's okay.

After all, we all make mistakes. I've certainly made more than my share. It's a cliche that we often learn more from our failures than our successes, but it also happens to be true. Why? The sting of defeat hits us harder than the pleasure of victory. It's simply more powerful. I'll never do that again, we tell ourselves. Just wait till my next at bat.

Perhaps my biggest misstep, my most flagrant swing and miss—one that can be as instructive for you as it was for me—came in 2008, just as the race for the presidency that year was heating up. I tell myself I made this particular mistake, a rookie mistake by a veteran negotiator who should have known better—me—because in truth I wasn't the one doing the negotiating. Rather, I was being negotiated, by one of the best negotiators I've ever met: the same man who appointed me ambassador to the UN back in 1996. The same man who, famously, could negotiate everything, right down to what the definition of is is, and come out on the winning side of that linguistically mind-boggling argument.

So I tell myself I was outmatched by a master negotiator.

But the truth is, I bobbled an easy grounder.

In late January 2008, President Bill Clinton rang me with news: He wanted to see me again. Only this time, he didn't summon me to the White House as he had back in 1996—another fellow currently lived there—and his only shot to return was as the spouse of my competitor for the presidency. But so adamant was he that we should meet that he proposed—rather, he insisted- -that he would fly to New Mexico so we could meet in person. He had a good enough excuse: He suggested we watch the Super Bowl together. On February 3, the New York Giants would take on the New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona. It promised to be a good game. Although if Bill had his way—and on this day, he certainly planned to—the featured entertainment that afternoon was going to take place in Santa Fe. And it too would be televised. Yes, just like in 1996, he wanted to say a few words about me on television, with me standing by his side.

Then he wanted me to speak the few words he had scripted for me:

"I endorse Hillary Clinton for president."

It may have been Super Bowl Sunday, but it was also smack in the middle of the heated primary race, and any punter could tell what his visit was really about. I had dropped out of the race the previous month, and since then my arm had been sore from all the twisting it had received from all corners in asking for my endorsement. Hillary called. Barack called. Even Ted Kennedy rang me in support of Obama. But Bill came the most, finding a number of excuses to swing by New Mexico in the days after I had withdrawn. But this was his big pitch. We'd watch the Super Bowl, but the action would be in Santa Fe: Bill Clinton was making a house call, conveniently two days before the New Mexico caucus and Super Tuesday, to twist my arm harder than the rest and secure my endorsement for his wife for the presidency.

The only problem: I wasn't going to play ball.

I did try to manage expectations about Bill's visit—to anyone who might take an interest and to Bill himself. For starters, I instructed my spokesman, Pahl Shipley, to tell the Associated Press, "There's no message intended by this." This is just two old friends getting together to watch sports—as if that's something Bill and I had done a thousand times before. (For the record, we hadn't.)

Yet despite my apparent hesitation, or perhaps because of the poor job I had done of dissuading him, Bill still thought he would negotiate an endorsement out of me. He even told the local reporters there'd be a press conference, as he planned to get my endorsement by halftime.

I knew he wouldn't succeed.

Yet I still let him do it.

I still let him come.

Even when it got complicated, I still let him come.

Even when a strong snowstorm made it impossible for the president's plane to land in Taos and we hastily made plans to relocate to the Governor's Mansion in Santa Fe—in other words, when I had a good excuse to cancel—I still let him come.

I still let a former president fly all the way to New Mexico, at great expense of his time, funds, and reputation—of blood and treasure, as they say in the war game—and I had not stepped in to stop it when it became obvious to the world what he was coming for.

Rookie mistake.

President Bill Clinton, who has at times been my friend and at others my foe, is a collection of superlatives.

Most everything complimentary said about the man is true. It's barely controversial to say he is perhaps the most natural politician of the modern era. To this day, he retains an unmatched ability to sweep through a room and charm each person he meets. When he finally departs, after tending carefully to each constituent—and we are all his constituents—for precisely the amount of time needed—no more, no less—to remind us, through a few perfectly chosen words and more perfectly chosen gestures, that life will be better after this meeting, he leaves behind the sense not only that someone important just stopped by, but also that something important just happened.

Even if it was just a handshake.

Yes, there's something about that handshake. He's got the best handshake in the biz. (And I should know. I have the Guinness World Record in most handshakes. But we'll get back to that.)

His speeches, even at their most winding and windy, render even other speechifiers speechless. And on that measure he just gets better; his keynote at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, as loquacious as ever, had the rafters shaking.

Everyone—men and women—says that when they're one-on-one with him, they get lost in his gaze. They can't all be wrong.

Simply: He was born to do this politics thing, and he's better at it than anyone. He rarely fails to impress. Having lived much of my political life in the Clinton era, I've seen this firsthand. When I was being considered for secretary of the interior and he and I discussed the land-use issues I'd be expected to address during my tenure, his knowledge of the minutiae of Native American affairs was daunting, and came preloaded. I remember thinking, Wait a minute here, I thought I was the New Mexican. I consider myself a pretty avid baseball fan, but he once put me to shame when I introduced him to Carlos Slim and the two of them got into a deep conversation about the most arcane batting statistics. I couldn't keep up. Bill is probably the only person who read the entire North American Free Trade Agreement. He's certainly the only person who could cite it chapter and verse. From memory.

The man is a sponge.

He is also a man of his word, at least in professional settings. He keeps the political promises he's made, even when it's inconvenient. And on this front, he knows the value of the personal touch. After he chose not to nominate me for the job at Interior, he called me up.

"How you feeling?"

He already knew how I was feeling. "I gotta be honest, Bill. This one hurt."

He felt my pain, the way he can.

"I hear you. But stay patient. These things tend to come 'round again."

In my case, they came around twice. I did stay patient, and sure enough, three years later, President Clinton rescued me from a goatherd's hut in Sudan and appointed me United States ambassador to the United Nations. Then in 1998, he appointed me secretary of energy. He felt he owed me, and even years later—when others might have forgotten—he paid up in full.

So yes, Bill Clinton is the best natural-born politician around, and he is a man of many virtues. But flip that coin—perhaps the coin he'll be on someday—and most everything unsavory said about the man also has to be considered. It's clear Bill has been on the receiving end of a parade of accusations over a long life in public service.

Lewinsky. Whitewater. Worse.

Is all of it true? Again, that may depend on what your definition of is is.

To be sure, there is a megalomania common to all of us who run for president. It takes a big ego to assume that you should be the leader of the free world. And on this measure, Bill leads the league. He does presume that the world revolves around him—not least because, for a time, it did.

After the professional help he had given me over the years, it's no surprise that I got a reputation as being a strong Clinton defender, even when it came to his personal life. And he clearly appreciated the support. But even I was surprised by how effusive he'd be in his thanks to me. "I love you, Billy," he'd say on many of his late-night phone calls. "I love you, man."

Some years later, for reasons I can't quite decipher, as the Clinton administration was winding down, I began to get a sense that my relationship with Bill was souring. The countless late-night phone calls talking about all manner of topics slowed to a trickle. (I realize how odd it may sound, but I missed hearing him tell me he loved me.) When I went to see him in the Oval Office to discuss my candidacy for DNC chairman, he was brusque. "Terry's getting that," he said, speaking of his friend Terry McAuliffe. "I'm not telling you not to run, but if you do, we're going to have to crush you." When I tried to press my case, the president did the oddest thing: He stood up in the middle of my sentence, walked over to a bookshelf, pulled down a book, and starting flipping through it, his back to me.

I was getting the cold shoulder from the president in the West Wing. If the Oval Office had had an ejector seat, I'm pretty sure he would have launched me onto the South Lawn. After a few moments of awkward silence, I picked up my things and left.

There have been moments of reprieve. A couple years later, we met up in Acapulco. Hillary and Bill were vacationing there, and my wife, Barbara, and I joined them. The four of us had a nice lunch full of laughs and grand plans, like old times. I also brought the world's richest man and a dear friend from my childhood, Carlos Slim, to meet the president. They were like little kids trying to outdo each other at baseball trivia. Slim later contributed heavily to the Clinton Foundation. But even through all that, I knew by then not to rely on that feeling of bonhomie. Our relationship had been hot and cold—and getting colder generally—and I had grown used to that.

So in 2008, I can't say I was surprised when he reached out to me during his wife's tight battle with Senator Obama—a battle I had withdrawn from myself only a month prior—and insisted that we enjoy a nice snowy afternoon in Santa Fe watching the Super Bowl with cold cuts, chips and salsa, and a dozen of our closest reporters. As halftime approached—and with it, the expected press conference—Bill still hadn't procured my endorsement. I leveled with him. "Bill, look. If you were running, I'd endorse you. But why should I endorse Hillary?" I had real reservations about the people she would bring in: the same old same old, as I saw it. It was clear he took my reluctance as a personal affront; to approve of Hillary is to approve of Bill. They come as a team. Still, I didn't find his counterarguments compelling. At halftime, instead of calling off the press conference, we invited in the photographers for thirty of the most awkward minutes of my life. When the assembled reporters asked us about what we were discussing, I let Bill do most of the talking—not my usual modus operandi. "The Giants have been great today," he said, ignoring the elephant in the room. "The defense has been unbelievable." When a reporter finally asked a direct question about the political race and Hillary's chances, all Bill could muster was "I hope she's going to win. . . . New Mexico has been very good to me. I love it here."

New Mexico may have been good to him, but I doubt he was loving New Mexico's governor at that moment. I was shocked that he didn't stand up, take a book off the shelf, and pretend to read. Heck, even I was wishing I had an ejector seat of my own. Not for him—for me. I wanted to be anywhere but there.

The game ended. The Giants won. The reporters left.

In the days that followed, Bill made other motions to pry an endorsement out of me. I learned later that he even asked Henry Cisneros, who had worked with Clinton as housing and urban development secretary, to intervene. "He thought I could deliver you," Henry told me.


"I guess he thought we spoke the same language."



Hey, I can't blame Bill. Whatever works. Lo que funcione.

At this point, it must be obvious. I'd been presented with a negotiator's doomsday scenario: a high-stakes, high-tension no-win situation. On one hand, I could embrace my friendship with Bill Clinton, endorse his wife for president . . . and compromise my beliefs. Or I could endorse Senator Obama, honor what felt right to me . . . and lose my most powerful political ally and one of my closest friends.

I hope you're never presented with such a situation, but this is the real world and these things happen. Ultimately, you'll have to choose. It will be painful. It'll force you to negotiate with yourself on a deep level—an ongoing theme in this book, as you'll see. It'll put your character to the test. But I do think you'll know very early on which choice to make, even though you'll lie to yourself about that. Finally, I made mine.

A month later, at a huge rally in Oregon, I endorsed Barack Obama. And it's fair to say: All hell broke loose.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Bill Richardson, Undersecretary for Thugs vii

The Clintons: A Cautionary Tale 1

North Korea: Hang on to Your Hats 15

Saddam Hussein and the Egyptian Torturer: It's All About the Shoes 49

Sudan: Get in, Get On With it, Get Out 73

Fidel Castro: Our Cuban Mission Crisis 99

The Congo: And the Lord Said, "Let's Do This!" 121

Hugo Chávez: Aló Presidente 137

Russia: An Imbalance of Power 161

President Barack Obania: A Hard Sell VS. A Soft Touch 175

Billy the Kid: Outlaws, Roswell, and how to keep the Dead from Getting the Last Word 211

Acknowledgments 229

Index 231

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How to Sweet-Talk a Shark: Strategies and Stories from a Master Negotiator 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not a "how-to" on how to negotiate, but rather a collection of Richardson's adventures in negotiating with some of the world's most famous recent despots. It is a quick and easy read. It provides insights into a few of Richardson's successes, and some of his miscues.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How refreshing to read a book written by a bonafide politician with humility and humor - especially at this time when the government is shutdown! I read this book in 2 days and couldn't put it down. Richardson (with the masterful help of Kevin Bleyer's entertaining and skilled writing) outlines career failures and successes negotiating with all the "bad guys" of the world from Saddam Hussein to the Kim's of North Korea. Although written as a sort of manual on negotiating, I found the personal insider stories of his meetings to be utterly fascinating. I'll definitely be recommending this book to friends, colleagues and family.