Big Donors Will Still Get Some Sweet Embassy Spots

Brenda Morris won't teach a public-corruption course just yet.
Brenda Morris won't teach a public-corruption course just yet. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

There's been much talk that, for all the talk about change, the Obama administration has not always been making radical departures from traditional ways of governing. For example, President Obama has not strayed all that far from the Bush administration's foreign policies.

And based on some early signals, that seems to be the case when it comes to the venerable tradition of rewarding mega-contributors and pals with fine ambassadorships in excellent locations such as Rome, London, Paris and Madrid. (Traditionally 30 percent of the 160 or so envoy positions are political picks, while the rest go to career Foreign Service officers.)

The Obama folks have indicated they were going to at least limit the number of such "vanity" or "cash-only" ambassadors and maybe even try to send emissaries who are not completely clueless. But the buzz is that big donors and bundlers won't be shut out.

The basic list actually has been pretty much set for a while. The plan apparently is to roll out the nominees in a bundle, so to speak, slipping the truly wealthy in with the truly competent. That might be one reason few ambassador picks have been announced -- vetting the super-rich can be time-consuming.

The Clinton administration tended to favor a "cash-plus" approach, in which big donor Democrats often had a modicum of knowledge of the languages or issues in the countries to which they were sent.

Until the full list comes out, it's unclear what Obama's overall policy will be, but some of the names circulating for plum posts include several who have contributed or bundled to the campaign or the inaugural or the Democratic Party some very serious money.

We've reported the chatter about a London posting for Louis Susman of Chicago, an early supporter who, with his wife, gave $106,500 to Obama-related committees, though he bundled only between $200,000 and $500,000 for the campaign. Charlie Rivkin, former Jim Henson Co. chief and an executive producer of Nickelodeon's "Yo Gabba Gabba!," has been talked about for Paris. He headed California fundraising for Obama and bundled more than $500,000 for the campaign and another $300,000 for the inaugural. Boston financier Alan Solomont, mentioned for Madrid, bundled the same amounts to the campaign and the inaugural.

On the other hand, you don't have to be a big contributor to serve. For example, David Thorne, a Boston-area investment adviser and entrepreneur, is up for Rome. He's a longtime, very close friend of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and is the twin brother of Kerry's late first wife.


And now, this stirring defense of White House economy czar Lawrence Summers from David Rothkopf, former Clinton administration deputy undersecretary of commerce for international trade policy.

"Speaking of executive branch sacrifice, one more point," Rothkopf blogged yesterday on Foreign "What's up with the attacks on Larry Summers for making a good living the last couple years? The guy was Treasury secretary and president of Harvard for goodness sake. Where did you expect him to work, White Castle? As those who know him and love him will tell you, he probably doesn't have the interpersonal skills for that type of work."

Maybe after the training program?


Everyone's been wondering: Whither Bush White House counsel Fred F. Fielding? Well, turns out he's returning to his old law firm. Ah, not so fast. Not that law firm. His really old law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he started as a summer clerk in Philadelphia in 1963. After his stint in the White House counsel's office for President Richard M. Nixon, he returned to Morgan Lewis until 1981, when he became President Ronald Reagan's White House counsel. He went private in 1986 at Wiley, Rein & Fielding.

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