Correction to This Article
This article originally identified Aaron Williams as an executive at Research Training Institute. Williams works at RTI International.

In the Loop: Obama's Ambassador List Looks a Lot Like His Donor List

(Isaac Brekken - AP)
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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

President Obama has been taking flak of late for giving fat-cat donors cushy ambassadorial posts. Despite some early signals that merit -- knowledge of the local language, culture or region, or perhaps foreign policy experience -- might play a role in determining who gets those jobs, big donors and bundlers seem to have grabbed the lion's share of the most coveted spots.

The British and Japanese press have been most put out by the choices being sent their way -- former investment banker Louis B. Susman and Silicon Valley lawyer John V. Roos, respectively. (It probably didn't help that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs quipped that Susman's qualification is that "he speaks English.")

Obama had specifically said he would continue the tradition of sending political picks overseas. Historically, around 30 percent of envoy positions are filled by politicals, the rest go to career Foreign Service folks, and Obama, when the dust settles, is likely to be in that range. In addition, many countries prefer non-career people who are said to be able to pick up the phone and speak directly to the U.S. president.

But a comparison of Obama's early picks with President Clinton's, for example, indicates substantial differences between the two Democrats. Clinton tended to pick people with experience in public policy -- if not international policy -- for the important embassies. His big donors were generally given jobs in smaller countries in eastern or northern Europe where they could do little lasting harm.

There are, of course, no hard rules on these matters. There is no consensus that just being rich is necessarily a bad thing, though most observers suggest that complete cluelessness is to be avoided, if possible.


Speaking of ambassadorships, the latest word is that former Virginia lieutenant governor Don Beyer, though related to Estonian aristocracy, is headed to Bern, Switzerland. Meanwhile, there's chatter that Marc Nathanson, cable and radio mogul and former chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, Radio and Television Marti, and Radio Free Asia, is the leading contender for that spectacular ambassador's residence in Prague -- despite his strong support for Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential bid.


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), perhaps spooked by some really bad polls in his Senate reelection bid next year, apparently has rejected the typical move to the center to pick up support. Instead, he's moving to the left.

The question now, is this move simply cosmetic or real? Is it a political ploy or a fashion statement?

The shift was clearly visible in recent days. Reid has traditionally parted his hair on the right side. But lately he has moved it to the left. His spokesman, Jim Manley says "it's much more natural" on that side.

Talk about pulling out all the stops!


Mississippi's state conservationist, Homer Lee Wilkes, who was announced in May to be undersecretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment -- which means running the Forest Service and the Natural Resources and Conservation Service -- has withdrawn from consideration for the job, citing personal reasons.

Early signals are Harris Sherman, now head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, is a strong contender for the job, but enviros are taking a hard look at his views on whether oil and gas and mining folks may build roads on some Forest Service lands.


There's word the administration is looking to name a new Peace Corps director soon. Early chat had been that James Arena-DeRosa, formerly the agency's New England regional director, was a leading contender for the job, but he seems to have faded. The front-runners now, we hear, are Frank Fountain, a senior executive at the Chrysler Group, and Aaron Williams, now a top executive with the Research Training Institute. Fountain was a volunteer in India, Williams in the Dominican Republic.

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