While several of President Obama’s political picks for ambassadorial posts have come under fire in recent weeks, we thought it would be worth making the argument for why it might be unwise to scrap this tradition altogether.
Here are the top 10 reasons to keep political appointees in the mix:
1. Even career foreign service officials acknowledge that individuals who have never worked in the State Department can prove to be skilled ambassadors. While career State Department employees believe their ranks offer the most experienced and talented diplomats, groups such as the American Foreign Service Association allow that there are political appointees who have served their country well. “All of us have worked for the occasional brilliant outsider who has excelled,” said Robert Silverman, the group's president.
2. Postings in glamorous places, such as London and Paris, require a degree of personal wealth because ambassadors are expected to pay out of their own pocket for some of the entertaining and residential upkeep. Even Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who suggested in an interview on Thursday the United States might want to get rid of ambassadors altogether, said “one reason [to keep political appointees] is the cost of being an ambassador."
3. Having a personal relationship with the president and his top aides can improve an ambassador’s effectiveness. One former U.S. ambassador, who asked not to be identified because of the current sensitivity surrounding these appointments, said in an interview, “If I had get to the White House, I could get to the White House more quickly than a career official could."
4. There is a long list of political appointees who have served abroad with distinction. “President Reagan made an inspired choice in Ambassador Shirley Temple, President Bush wisely tapped former Republican Majority Leader Howard Baker, and we've seen Republican governors like Jon Huntsman, former vice presidents like Walter Mondale, former Speaker Foley, and titans of industry like Felix Rohatyn serve America with great distinction,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s spokesman David Wade said in a statement. “I'd hate to see them disqualified because heaven forbid they had a political affiliation, and I haven't met a foreign service officer who disagreed." Even as he criticized the Obama administration in a recent op-ed, Lehigh University international relations professor Henri Barkey wrote of Clinton appointee Felix Rohatyn: “He was extraordinary; I served in the State Department then, and at times colleagues and I would read Rohatyn’s diplomatic cables — he wrote many himself — for the sheer pleasure of their clarity, analysis and style. He probably knew as many people in Paris as he did in New York. As an American, you could not be anything but proud to have Rohatyn as ambassador."
5. Without political appointments, the number of openly gay ambassadors would not have risen so quickly in recent years. Before 2013, three openly gay people had served as top U.S. diplomats: Jim Hormel, Michael Guest and David Huebner. Last year, five openly gay people were confirmed as ambassadors: Wally Brewster in the Dominican Republic, John Berry in Australia, James Costos in Spain, Rufus Gifford in Denmark and Daniel Baer as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
6. It offers career advancement opportunities to all sorts of people, including personal secretaries. Helene von Damm, an Austrian émigré who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary, became ambassador to Austria in 1983. Granted, within two years of her arrival she divorced her third husband and married Peter Gürtler, owner of the famous Sacher Hotel. She resigned her post as a result of the affair. According to a People magazine account at the time: “The gossiping tongues in Washington and Vienna had to be stilled. The conflict between her private life and public duty had to be resolved. She picked up a black felt tip pen and a yellow legal pad and, fighting back tears, stayed up most of the night writing, through 20 drafts, a letter of resignation. 'I must recognize there are voices that continue to assert a conflict of interest between my professional responsibilities and my personal situation,' she wrote to Reagan. 'These circumstances have led me to the conclusion that the interests of our country ... are best served by your appointment of a new Ambassador to Austria.' The letter acknowledged what von Damm's friends had been telling her privately — that the scandal over her love affair and marriage to a dashing Viennese hotelier had hopelessly compromised her role as ambassador.
7. Once individuals are nominated, it’s not realistic to expect them to book a trip to the country where they’re destined to be posted. State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach said there’s a policy against doing that: “It’s seen as presumptive and sidestepping the Senate.”
8. If the practice ends, there is no chance that Vogue editor and fashion icon Anna Wintour could ever become ambassador to Britain, her home country. That posting could become a reality for Wintour, a major Democratic fundraiser, if Hillary Clinton runs and wins the presidency in 2016.
9. Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" writers would have to work harder to find material. As it stands now, he can crack jokes about the fact that "I hadn't realized that Democrats were impervious to Benjamin Franklin's charms," and the tourism campaign, "Come to Norway, you may be our ambassador someday."
10. The system is unlikely to change anytime soon. “You’re not going to persuade a politician to reduce chances for election and reelection by cutting him off from his donors,” said Dennis Jett, a former career diplomat who became an international affairs professor at Pennsylvania State University after serving as U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique.
Want to be an ambassador? Here's a how-to guide: