Richardson, certainly, sounds more like an overwhelmed kindergarten teacher than a captain ready to go down with his ship, blaming his apparent lack of progress in plugging up security leaks to the often un-military "lab culture" of America's nuclear incubators. "What I should have said, what I didn't take into account, is that the lab culture needs to be changed," said Richardson. "I didn't take in the human element." TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson says there's something to that. "These places have a very academic feel to them. It's the way scientists are comfortable working; it's the way the best work gets done," he says. "But from a security standpoint, there's a vulnerability that comes with that."
None of that matters much now. Republicans convinced of the Clinton administration's inherent sloppiness in matters of national security are closing in. The headlines behind a copy machine? are getting more and more embarrassing. And Richardson, with the Democratic National Convention less than two months away, is seeing a mushroom cloud where his political future used to be. He used to be on Al Gore's short list for veep; now Bill Clinton, coming out of church, snubs reporters looking for a vote of confidence. Richardson's biggest mistake probably was agreeing to inherit a DOE nuke-lab system that seems designed to embarrass its administrators. And then there's the matter of the New Mexico brush fire that made this brand-X tomfoolery possible. As Richardson bumped into Democratic money man and convention emcee Terry McAuliffe in some news-show greenroom on Sunday, he might have wondered: Is it too late to have Bruce Babbitt take the fall?