In a new twist on the 2008 presidential campaign's most overused phrase, New Mexico's Gov. Bill Richardson threw himself under the bus Sunday and withdrew his nomination to be the next commerce secretary. He did the right thing. A simultaneous Senate confirmation and grand jury investigation is a spectacle neither the Obama administration nor the nation needs right now.
Whether he can hang on to his job as governor - and stay out of jail - are separate questions, but are hardly of national interest. And on those levels, Richardson can take care of himself.
The governor is being investigated by an Albuquerque grand jury in a possible "pay-for-play" scheme involving a California company that made large donations to political committees formed by Richardson and that did lucrative business with the state of New Mexico. As the Associated Press has reported, Beverly Hills-based CDR Financial Products and its chief executive officer, David Rubin, gave $100,000 to Richardson's committees before and after the company was awarded a contract to help the state finance $1.4 billion worth of highway and transportation projects. CDR is reported to have made more than $443,000 in fees on the deal.
All concerned deny wrongdoing, and it remains to be seen whether the grand jury can come up with anything damning. But the timing and amounts involved in the arrangements offer at least appear questionable. And in quickly hiring what the AP called "a prominent white-collar attorney" Richardson has done little to make the situation look better.
Moreover, this affair is coming on the heels of the extraordinarily tawdry business involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and what a U.S. attorney has said were his efforts to essentially sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. That alone is enough to make Richardson's position as a Cabinet nominee untenable.
Presuming, as we must, that Richardson is not guilty - or that no charges can be proved - he could well survive a grand jury investigation as governor. Even if he does, however, he will be tarnished. His career, while exemplary on a number of levels, already bears smudges from past episodes, including his messy tenure as secretary of energy and his alleged involvement in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Another blemish would be too much. And, trying to deal with both a grand jury and what would then become a contentious nomination process would inevitably become just that. Fighting on would only have invited further comparison to Blagojevich and made Richardson's legal difficulties into an embarrassment for the new president.
Obama does not need a distraction like that in the opening months of his administration. He and the American people have other, far more important things on which to focus.
Whatever becomes of Richardson's political career, in this he acted correctly.