Feeling the Chill in Paradise

By Al Kamen
Thursday, January 15, 2009

The legendary annual conference of the American Association of Airport Executives in Hawaii -- the aviation event of the year, now wrapping up at the lovely Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel in Kona -- seems to have lost a bit of its luster.

In the old days, you could usually find lawmakers (perhaps Tom Daschle when he was in the Senate), Hill staffers and civil servants from transportation-related agencies mingling with the executives and lobbyists, sunning themselves, taking in the sights and, of course, playing golf.

The conference was always at a premier island resort, with rooms steeply discounted to the government rate, and meetings and policy discussions were confined to the morning hours. Schedules on the Hill were juggled to allow people to attend.

But this year, with Congress in session and lobbyists radioactive, the gathering seems different. "It's a shadow of its former self," our source on the scene reported yesterday. He spotted no lawmakers, no Hill staffers and only a few civil servants, such as Gerald Dillingham, associate director of the Government Accountability Office, who was on the schedule to talk about transportation issues.

Well, maybe next year, when all this ethics stuff dies down.

Warmest Reprieves

President-elect Barack Obama is extending the tours of two Bush administration ambassadors serving in warm and exotic locales, including a major Republican supporter who is particularly close to the outgoing president.

Clifford M. Sobel, President Bush's ambassador to Brazil, will remain in Brasilia for an unspecified period of time beyond Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration. Perhaps Sobel -- a major donor to Bush's presidential campaigns and member of past Republican National Convention platform committees before becoming Bush's ambassador to the Netherlands and later Brazil -- could attend Brazil's Carnival festivities as Obama's ambassador. The party is scheduled for Feb. 21, four days before Ash Wednesday.

Asked why Obama decided to extend Sobel's term, Lisa Kubiske, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said only: "There's nothing personal. It's all work." We had heard that Sobel had urged he be allowed to remain to ensure continued smooth relations with that country.

In Bermuda, meanwhile, Consul General Gregory W. Slayton will remain in his post. We had heard he had noted some family scheduling issues in his request, but that couldn't be confirmed. An aide in Hamilton confirmed that Slayton is sticking around the island but said, "We can't speak about it."

Every U.S. ambassador, as is the tradition every four years, was instructed by the outgoing president after the November election to submit a letter of resignation. It is the incoming president's choice whether to accept the resignations or ask ambassadors to stay on while a successor is confirmed, a process that can take several months at least. If Obama rejects an extension, the senior career officer at the embassy usually takes over in the interim.

Obama's ruling is "a personnel decision as well as a policy decision," said State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid.


Speaking of transportation, there appear to be a fair number of openings in that department. There's talk that Peter Rogoff, a senior aide on the Senate Appropriations Committee aviation subcommittee, may be in the mix for a top spot, perhaps a deputyship.

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