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02.20.09

Obama's Man in London

The president's plan to appoint a wealthy fundraiser to an ambassadorship should renew the debate on whether foreign posts should be handed out to the highest bidder.

If a CNN report on Thursday is true, President Barack Obama will appoint Chicago investment banker Louis Susman to represent America in the Court of St. James.

Susman, like previous presidential friends posted to places like London and Paris, has one major thing to recommend him: money. The Democratic fundraising legend got behind Obama's candidacy early and later bundled some $300,000 in donations toward his inauguration. As John Kerry's national finance chairman, Susman raised a staggering $247 million for that campaign in 2004 and he has worked on several presidential campaigns in the past as well.

It is a strange country where we jeer at former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for allegedly auctioning off a US Senate seat, while accepting as normal that dozens of ambassadorships are brazenly sold to the highest bidder. Throw a dart at a map of Europe and you're likely to hit a country whose ambassador's chief qualification is his or her fundraising prowess for the party in the White House. And for all of Obama’s talk about transparency and bringing change to Washington, the tradition likely isn’t going anywhere.

Throw a dart at a map of Europe and you’re likely to hit a country whose ambassador’s chief qualification is his or her fundraising prowess for the party in the White House.

Recent examples of the ambassador-as-money-man include Robert Tuttle, one of George W. Bush’s ambassadors to the Court of St. James, a California auto dealer who raised $100,000 for Bush's 2004 campaign and an additional $100,000 for his inauguration. St. Louis businessman Sam Fox, Bush’s ambassador to Belgium, donated $50,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 and raised more than $200,000 for Republicans. Ronald P. Spogli, the ambassador to Italy, who raised more than $100,000 for Bush's re-election. There are many, many others like them with similar totals next to their names.

Such cases evoke the political culture of a banana republic, yet experts say that even despotic countries have some sense of shame and propriety when it comes to picking ambassadors. Rewarding contributors with plum diplomatic posts is a uniquely American tradition, through both Republican and Democratic administrations. Often, the practice tends to come to public attention only in cases when the ambassador is has some celebrity cachet—as when Ronald Reagan appointed Shirley Temple Black (wife of a major donor) ambassador to Ghana, or when Bill Clinton appointed Jean Kennedy Smith, sister of John and Robert Kennedy, to be ambassador to Ireland.

On average, about one-third of all US ambassadorships consistently go to these "noncareer" appointees (i.e. mega-rich campaign donors, fishing buddies, and retired politicians) instead of trained foreign-service officers. The donors typically go to popular spots like Europe, South America, and the Caribbean, while the foreign-service officers are sent to less lavish spots (i.e., Joe Wilson in Gabon).

“It's a matter of pleasing or appeasing a high-rolling political appointee,” career foreign-service officer Ronald Spiers told The Daily Beast. “Generally these guys like to be referred to as 'Mr. Ambassador' for the rest of their lives.”

“I understand it is a nice lifestyle,” retired Sen. Chic Heidt told The New York Times in 1989, while discussing why he wanted a posting to the Bahamas. “I love golf, and they have a lot of nice golf courses and good fishing.”

Asked at a news conference last month whether he would appoint top donors as ambassadors, President Obama bluntly said that "there probably will be some" who fit that bill. "It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven't come through the ranks of the civil service," he said, adding that his preference would be to appoint State department veterans when possible.

The rumor mill has churned over several of Obama’s high-profile options. Caroline Kennedy, who was thought to be possible for the Court of St. James before her botched bid for a Senate seat, was allegedly in the running for a post to the Vatican before her pro-life and pro-stem cell credentials drew ire. And the British press was at one point abuzz over the possibility that Oprah would get the London embassy, while Vogue editor Anna Wintour was mentioned as a possible ambassador to France until a rep shot down those rumors in November.

The American Academy of Diplomacy has called for a cut in the number of political appointees to 10 percent of total ambassadorships, and several career State Department officials have penned op-eds calling for similar reductions. The aim is to avoid repeating some of the more egregiously unqualified picks of recent years. For example, George W. Bush appointed five baseball-franchise owners to ambassadorships in Europe, some of whom did not speak the host country's language. Major Bush donor David Wilkins, who became ambassador to Canada, had visited the country only once, in the early 1970s.

While the concept of fundraising as a prerequisite to a top ambassador gig may be distasteful, there is also hope that President Obama might at least pick millionaires with some relevant experience. On the surface, Susman appears promising in this regard—he recently retired as vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets, giving him a strong background in world finance, London's largest industry. Past successes along these lines include Pamela Harriman and Felix Rohatyn in France, both top Democratic fundraisers, who had strong ties to the country beforehand and proved extremely popular abroad after being picked by President Bill Clinton in succession.

Not everyone turns out so well, however. Part of Ronald Spiers’ job as Undersecretary of State for Management in the Reagan administration, was to sweep ambassadors who flamed out under the rug, although some cases proved too spectacular to hide. Ambassador to Mexico John Gavin, an old acting buddy of Reagan who appropriately starred in Psycho, roughed up a local television cameraman. Ambassador to Norway Mark Evans Austad, a broadcaster back in America, became a tabloid star abroad for incidents such as banging on a terrified woman’s door at 3 a.m. after an embassy cocktail party.

Then there were the shadier cases like Reagan buddy William A. Wilson, who resigned as ambassador to the Vatican after arranging secret meetings with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, or Faith Whittlesey, who battled allegations ranging from bribery and misuse of government funds to involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal before stepping down as ambassador to Switzerland.

Despite the success of some political appointees, unless Congress or the president break with tradition and reform the process, the prospect of a seasoned foreign-policy wonk snapping up the next ambassadorship to Luxembourg remains astronomically low. Meanwhile, the consequences of putting the new FOBs—Friends of Barack—in our most desirable embassies is hard to calculate.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for the New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.