America’s Next Ambassador to France?- by Sandra McElwaine
Now that Caroline Kennedy has been appointed U.S. Ambassador to Japan, the Washington guessing game is centered on Jane Watson Stetson, a leading philanthropist, IBM heiress, former Obama mega-bundler and former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee. Insiders say she is slated for one of the most plum posts in any administration: the U.S. Ambassador to France.
The high-profile job is almost always a political payback, bestowed on a major donor—a super fat cat for whom the annual ambassador’s salary, which can run up to $179,700 depending on location, is a mere bagatelle.
The American ambassador to France tends to be seriously rich, with the ability to pay for endless amounts of entertaining in the elegant embassy, once owned by the Rothschilds in the heart Faubourg St. Honoré. It is a glamorous, prestigious post with unique cachet. It is also one of the most coveted. (Among the most famous U.S. envoys to France: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Monroe.)
“Paris is an interesting center where things are happening,” says an American diplomat and aide to former ambassador Pamela Harriman. “Some Ambassadors can be widow dressing. Others are not. If they really get in involved in the job and want to learn they can be extremely effective.”
Rumors swirled last year that Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour—Michelle Obama’s style maven and a top Obama fundraiser—was the first choice for the city of lights, or possibly London. But that speculation was downplayed and disappeared. Next came word that billionaire hedge-fund manager Marc Lasry was packing his bags and on his way to the Hôtel de Pontalba. When news broke of his link to a poker group supposedly run by the Russian mob that was moving funds through an art gallery at New York's posh Carlyle Hotel, he quickly withdrew his name from the running.
Now Stetson, the scion of a historic fortune with impeccable roots and credentials, appears to have an inside track to the ambassadorship. She speaks fluent French, and attended the American College in Paris and the Sorbonne. Her grandfather Thomas J. Watson was the founder of IBM. Her uncle Thomas J. Watson Jr. served as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union under Jimmy Carter and her father, Arthur K. Watson, was appointed U.S. Ambassador to France by Richard Nixon. (Normally a model of propriety, Arthur created quite a stir in the spring of 1972 when columnist Jack Anderson reported in his “Washington Merry-Go-Round” that the ambassador “got gloriously drunk” on a flight to London, during which he “kept shouting for more scotch, grabbing the stewardesses and trying to stuff money down the fronts of the blouses.”)
Most important for any diplomat, Stetson has the confidence and ear of the president with easy access to plenty of “face time.” She raised $2.4 million for Obama and the DNC in 2012, and according to The New York Times, since 2007, she’s bundled close to $4 million. At a fundraiser in their home in Norwich, Vermont, in 2007 they brought in hundreds of thousands in one night. And this does not even include personal donations by Watson and her environmentalist husband, Bill, a longtime Obama political ally.
To father heighten her Democratic ties, Stetson was among an elite cadre of contributors who surprised Hillary Clinton when she retired from the State Department by paying off Clinton’s $250,000 presidential campaign debt. Their outreach was so successful that Clinton’s campaign ended up with a net gain of $205,000 for the future.
Stetson, a 60-something New York native, divides her time between homes in Washington and Norwich, where she has been a longtime civic leader and health advocate, especially in the field of pediatrics. When one of her three daughters became chronically ill, she helped establish several programs to train pediatric residents to practice medicine under a collaborative model.
Known as a workaholic, she has also served in various leadership positions for Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. Patrick Leahy, who told The Daily Beast, “She is smart, savvy, and tireless. She puts her energy and talent into a wide range of worth projects ... She is engaged with the world on the issues of the day in the best Vermont tradition."
Ann Lewis, former White House director of communications and counselor to Bill Clinton, says, “Jane is her a terrific fundraiser, a great member of the team, and a pleasure to work with.”
As for her potential ambassadorial assignment, Lewis notes, “Jane would represent our country well. She understands the best of America.”
The Stetsons head the list of Vermont’s top 10 political fundraisers. Bill Stetson views political contributions as a form of activism. He told VT Digger.org. “you can help a candidate you really believe in. We do. We max out, as it were.” He went on to say they don’t just give money but always volunteer, too. Then he commented, “National politics is an expensive game."
If his wife finally gets the nod and heads to France, the above will be certainly have been proven true. As one insider wryly observes, “The luster of old money never dies and often trumps the new.”