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A Semi-defense Of Obama's Buckraking Ambassadors

Scott Horton of Harper's pens a long lament that, when it comes to awarding ambassadorships to campaign donors, Obama is worse than Bush:

Under Barack Obama, the process of political payoff through ambassadorial appointments has matched and appears poised to exceed the already extremely abusive system that Karl Rove put in place under the Bush Administration. In his first six months, Obama has forwarded 58 ambassadorial nominees to the Senate for confirmation. Retired career diplomat Dennis Jett reports in the Daily Beast that 32 of these nominees—55% of the total—are political appointees.

Horton makes special mention of, among others, Lou Susman and Don Beyer, Obama's ambassadors to Great Britain and Switzerland, respectively. It's certainly true that both men raised big money for Obama and I have no doubt their buckraking abilities were a (maybe the) major reason they were given these plum diplomatic assignments, but I think both men brought something else to the table besides their fundraising skills.

In Susman's case, there's sentiment. In the Obama creation myth--or at least one version of it, as there many competing creation myths out there--Susman plays a major role. As an advisor to John Kerry told me when I did this Kerry profile last year, the road to Obama delivering his career-making keynote address to the Democratic convention began when Susman, a Chicago banker and the finance chair for Kerry's '04 presidential campaign, introduced Obama to Kerry at a Chicago campaign event. The advisor recalled: "Obama spoke and Lou said something like, 'That guy's got a big future in politics.' And Kerry said something like, 'We should find something for him to have a bigger role.' It wasn't necessarily the keynote, but he was thinking about the convention and the campaign." So, if you're Obama and you're looking for an Ambassador to the Court of St. James--which, traditionally, has gone to a fundraiser--Susman would bring more to the table than just the fact that he raised cash for you.

As for Beyer, whom Horton describes as "a car dealer from Northern Virginia," it is worth pointing out that, in addition to his car dealerships, he was Virginia's lieutenant governor for two terms and campaigned for Obama in the Commonwealth. Does that him an expert on Switzerland? No. But he's got more going for him than just some successful car dealerships. In other words, it's not like Cal Nothington is going to be our man in Bern.

P.S.  I think Horton would have strengthened his case if he'd mentioned Obama tapping John Roos over Joseph Nye as his ambassador to Japan. That's a job that has traditionally gone to non-fundraisers, but Obama went with a buckraker.

--Jason Zengerle