Don't Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out, Bill

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Bill Richardson was ready for his close-up. Until he was beset by the double woes of Wen Ho Lee and rising gas prices, the energy secretary was a political and media darling. He was the consummate politico, working the press to his advantage and apparently headed on a one-way trip to the top of the Democratic party. That was then, of course. Thanks to a series of security lapses at the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory — capped by this week's revelation that vital hard drives are missing from the lab's inner sanctum — and his struggle to stabilize gas prices, Richardson, once positioned near the top of the short list of this year's vice-presidential possibilities, is sliding backward down the political slope. And it's unclear if anyone is willing to break his fall.

Richardson caught the eye of the Democratic leadership during his seven terms as a U.S. Representative from New Mexico, impressing colleagues with his dynamism and charm. Youthful (he's a young-looking 52) and eminently presentable, he was shipped up to the United Nations in 1997, where he served as U.S. ambassador until the Clinton administration called him back to Washington. He was made secretary of energy in 1998, and has spent the last two years coming to the unpleasant realization that the few square miles inside the Beltway can be some of the most treacherous in the land.

And while opposition to Richardson has been rumbling for a while, this breach may well be the straw that breaks the camel's back. How does one explain, for example, the three-week delay between the initial discovery that hard drives containing top-secret information had been taken from the Chris Carter-esque "X Division" of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratory and any report to Washington?

Richardson's understated reaction to this week's scandal has only served, observers and opponents argue, to underscore his reputation as an unsuitably blasé presence in a high-security post. Adding fuel to this fire, on Wednesday he skipped a congressional hearing into the Los Alamos losses, a move that garnered considerable ire in the form of a strikingly unsubtle rebuke to the secretary: The Republican-controlled Senate confirmed the nation's first National Nuclear Security Administration. But that wasn't the end of Richardson's nonchalance. In a statement apparently devoid of irony, he reportedly complained that the creation of a new security position might encroach on the energy secretary's jurisdiction over the nuclear labs. Which, of course, may be exactly the point.