Bill Richardson – the former US energy secretary, UN ambassador, state governor and one-time presidential candidate – is distracted. A phalanx of kanduras and suits are parading through the Abu Dhabi exhibition hall where we sit. It is just before the opening ceremony of the World Future Energy Summit, a conference that brings presidents and ministers to the emirate.
"Who's that there, coming? It looks like a head of state. Who's opening the forum, who's the first speaker?"
"Hollande," I say.
"Is it Hollande?
"Let me just see who it is," he says, turning to photographer with The National. "Is that Hollande?"
"It's Hollande," says the photographer.
Slowly, Mr Richardson repeats the name: "François Hollande."
Mr Richardson, 65, once vied for the Democratic nomination to the presidency in 2008 elections. Now he is a consultant and on this day he is fulfilling part of his obligations as the chairman of APCO Worldwide's global political strategies group.
The rest of his time Mr Richardson spends lecturing at Rice University in Houston, Texas or back in his home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
There, he runs a foundation specialising in freeing political prisoners and promoting dialogue with marginalised governments such as Cuba and Myanmar – a skill learnt during his former life as a Clinton envoy in negotiations with some of the biggest bad guys in history, from Saddam Hussein to Slobodan Milosevic.
His speciality is in dealing with the unpopular. Last month, he went on a highly publicised trip to North Korea with Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, to drum up support for widened access to the internet in what he billed as a humanitarian mission. The US state department described the trip as counterproductive by giving North Korea the chance to generate good PR about a visit from prominent Americans just a month after launching a missile.
"North Korea is a very closed society and gives limited access to internet to its citizens, but we managed to persuade a large number of their government and their scientists and their software engineers to open up," says Mr Richardson. "Whether they will, we don't know."
Face to face with Mr Richardson, it is easy to see why he is often the top pick for meetings with isolated and belligerent leaders. Tall, 1.879 metres, with a potbelly, he is impressive in size yet as unthreatening as a panda bear.
His weakness is undeniably human. Negotiating, as he says, is all about finding what brings you together – even when that man is Saddam Hussein.
"I think you have to respect other positions," he says. "You've got to give the other side a chance to save face. I think most importantly you have to know where you want to end up, and you have to find ways to reach common ground with people you disagree with."
Mr Richardson's zigzag path through Baghdad, Washington and Boston began in Mexico City, where his Mexican mother raised money to record books for the blind and his American father was an influential banker. (Dwight Eisenhower, the US president at the time, sometimes called him to chat about the view from Mexico.)
On a regular night at the Richardsons, guests could include the head of the central bank or the chairman of Pemex, the national oil company. The family chose to live in a relatively poor neighbourhood, unlike their friends who ensconced themselves in Beverly Hills-style enclaves, and his parents quietly lent their time and money to helping others, including launching Little League baseball teams for those less privileged.
In his co-written autobiography, Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life, published in 2007, the year he launched his bid for the presidency, Mr Richardson says he made friends just as easily with the boys from around his neighbourhood as the pampered children with whom he went to private school. His parents' rule of being humble in wealth also rubbed off. When he got a new baseball mitt, he writes, he carefully worked it in before bringing it to school rather than make anyone feel bad for having an old mitt.
Despite his precocious diplomacy, he didn't think about entering politics until at Tufts University near Boston, when he ran for president of his fraternity, Delta Tau Delta.
"I guess I was a late bloomer. I wasn't a terribly good student," he says. "I changed the fraternity, or tried, from beer-drinking fun to more social issues. We shifted from just having fun to helping with charities and kids' groups. And that got me interested in politics."
He moved back to New Mexico after earning a master's degree in international relations. and was named executive director of the state Democratic Party. In his late twenties he ran for office for the first time – and lost. But fortune smiled on his second run.
"In politics you got to be lucky and have good timing," he says. "The second race there was redistricting into a district that was good for me, from my hometown of Santa Fe, and the second round I won, so I was in Congress for 15 years. Then I went to the United Nations, Clinton named me UN ambassador, and then energy secretary."
He moved on to take up work in the private sector and then ran for governor of New Mexico, becoming so popular that in his re-election he won a historic 69 per cent of the vote.
But the luck didn't last forever. In 2007 he launched his bid for the presidency but dropped out early on.
"I ran a respectable race, but it was the Obama year," he says. "It was a wonderful experience, but it was a whole year of your life and you learn about yourself, you learn a lot about the country."
Mr Obama nominated Mr Richardson to serve as his commerce secretary. As governor, Mr Richardson had gained a reputation as a politician friendly to business, and in particular to energy. New Mexico is one of the centres of uranium enrichment in the US and is home to 45 million acres of hydrocarbon-laced land, according to the US bureau of land management.
But the nomination was derailed by allegations that companies had made contributions to Mr Richardson's political action committee to win government contracts.
The justice department never indicted Mr Richardson, but by then the man who had once been a contender for the presidency had become a punchline on late-night comedy shows.
Two years later, a federal grand jury began investigating whether Mr Richardson's political supporters had given US$250,000 (Dh918,275) to a woman to stop her from exposing an affair she said she had had with the governor.
Although no longer in office, Mr Richardson remains active in politics, whether pushing for a reform of immigration law or opining on Iranian sanctions.
In the interview, the academic in him comes out – he has lectured at Harvard and still teaches occasionally at Rice – but he has to stop himself. The opening ceremony is about to start.