Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Ambassadorships For Sale: Term Two, Round Two

Chicagoans did well for themselves in the first Obama term; two still serve in the highly sought-after assignments of London and Paris. As Obama looks to his expensive legacy projects, more look to be on the way.

Louis Susman, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom Photo: Chicago Tribune

Chicagoans did particularly well in the ambassadorial sweepstakes after Barack Obama’s first victory: two still serve in top-of-the-line posts, London and ParisWhether or not Louis Susman and Charles Rivkin would really like to stay on for a second term, they will soon be thanked for their service and asked to vacate their mansions on Regent’s Park in London and avenue Gabriel in Paris, so that a second collection of  bundlers can claim their places. When I interviewed her in 2009, the Center for Responsive Politics’s executive director, Sheila Krumholtz, described ambassador placement as a “donor rewards program.”

This last presidential campaign was historically expensive and bundlers must be rewarded. And, like all second term presidents, Obama has to consider his legacy (aka his library and museum), and those institutions are built on the backs of the sort of mega-donors who get ambassadorships.

The more naïve good government types expected that Obama, with all his talk of transparency, the urgency of making government accessible to ordinary Americans, and taking government back from moneyed interests, would at least slow the long tradition of paying back his biggest donors with postings to world capitals—Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and Canada, for starters. But Obama has stuck to the formula of about 30 percent appointments of cronies, and the rest—think dangerous, unpleasant assignments like Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali—to the professionals, people who have come up through the foreign service or have trained decades to achieve the rank of ambassador.

Think also the late Chris Stevens, U.S. ambassador to Libya, an example of the latter, who met so violent an end while visiting a satellite consulate in Benghazi.

(Anyone interested in good government should bookmark the American Foreign Service Association’s website, which is updated regularly and lists the names of current ambassadors and the countries to which they’re posted, and, most interesting, the percentages of political ambassadorships [30.2 percent] and career ambassadorships [69.8 percent]).

Another highly sought-after posting is Berlin, and according to the Washington Postthe Chicago-born and University of Chicago Law School-educated (class of ’78) John Emerson,  is a possibility for that job. The 57-year-old Emerson, who served on the University of Chicago’s visiting committee, is a Hollywood fundraiser for Democrats, chairman emeritus of the board of the Los Angeles Music Center, and president of the Capital Group’s Private Client Services.  Before that he was deputy assistant to Bill Clinton in the White House. And Emerson was instrumental in helping to scoop up the dollars that built the Clinton library in Little Rock. 

A political guy to Germany? I interviewed Emerson in 2006 when I was writing about Bill Clinton and he seemed smart, charming, and in love with politics. (He ran the Gary Hart campaign in 1987 and ran the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign in California.)  Still, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the most consequential player in Europe, and making decisions that could impact the US and global economies, would the U.S. and the world be better served by someone with a deep understanding of the eurozone?

There are some bundler names already being floated for England and France (the latter also includes Monaco): Matthew Barzun, Anna Wintour, and Marc Lasry (a New York hedge-fund chief who employed Chelsea Clinton), to name a few. Washingtonian John Phillips (husband of former ABC news correspondent Linda Douglass) is reportedly the pick for Rome.

There are sure to be Chicagoans and Obama bundlers in the mix in the next few weeks as the ambassadorial sweepstakes intensify. Crain’s Shia Kapos has reported that hedge fund chief Michael Sacks, CEO of Grosvenor Capital Management, vice chairman of World Business Chicago, bundler of $500,000 for Obama, board member of Sun-Times owner Wrapports LLC, and buddy of Rahm Emanuel (Sacks is headed with Bill Daley to China to try to drum up some business for Chicago) could land an embassy.  

I’ll be watching and waiting and expect our city’s biggest bundlers will be among those who will win the life-long honor of being addressed “the Honorable Ambassador [fill in the name].”  Stay tuned.

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