Obama’s ambassador picks fumble the ‘been there’ question

Nominations disasters often add new questions for potential nominees undergoing background checks.

For example, after President Clinton’s first nominee for attorney general, Zoe Baird, went up in flames over an illegal nanny, folks are now asked about household employees.  Last month, at a cringe-inducing performance by Obama mega-bundlers before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), looks to have added a new question to the mix: whether the nominee has ever been to the countries to which they hope to go.

It was a devastating hearing, especially for Chartwell Hotels CEO George Tsunis, who hadn’t been, and didn’t seem to know much about, his intended post in Norway.

Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also asked the “ever been” question to  big-bundler Noah Mamet, the nominee for ambassador to Argentina. Alas, no.

We should remember that such a lack of familiarity is hardly new. A Loop Fan recalled the legendary Maxwell Gluck, a wealthy owner of a women’s clothing store chain, major GOP contributor  and thoroughbred horse breeder who was Eisenhower’s nominee to go to Ceylon in 1957. At his Senate hearing he was asked the name of the premier of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He said, our source recalled, something like:”I look forward to learning that when I get to Colombo.”

Gluck,blistered in the press, later said he knew the name, he just couldn’t pronounce it. In any event, he served one year, apparently without incident. Eisenhower “angrily denied” that he gave Gluck the job because of campaign contributions, according to Gluck’s 1984 obituary, which noted that “the incident prompted the Senate to open up hearings on ambassadors’ qualifications.”( Guess the hearings didn’t amount to much.)

Note 1: To Cassandra Butts, a former White House lawyer who was nominated Monday  to be ambassador to the Bahamas: You may be asked if you’d been there. (Too late to go now. You can hear the outrage: “Mr. Chairman, she hasn’t been confirmed and yet she insults us by going. . .”) So, if you haven’t been, you’ll have to rely on credentials like Hill and White House experience and your work on the Millenium Challenge Corporation, an international development organization.

Note 2: To future mega-bundlers. Pick the top countries you’d like to be appointed to and visit them now, or in the spring, so you can say you’ve been.

But just having been to a country, while certainly a good thing,  is neither synonymous with expertise nor a great predictor of success. After all, some of those “experts” who got us into Iraq had been there before the invasion. Rummy had even hung out with Saddam.

Also, many career foreign service officers rotate from one continent to another every so often, and that seems to work out okay — though largely because they are diplomats dedicated to doing the job.

Maybe, to quote Nats outfielder Bryce Harper, the “have you ever been?” demand  is something of “a clown question, bro’.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.
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Al Kamen | February 7