Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Truth Behind Obama's Use of Ambassador Posts as Political Rewards 1/2

by Nomad

Confirmation hearings for President Obama's choice for the Ambassador position to Norway was, by any measure, a disaster. 
Critics of the administration immediately began asking questions about the process. Why has the President selected so many political campaign contributors for ambassadorial posts? To hear some of the president's critics, you might well think Obama invented this practice. The truth, however, is quite different. But that's not something you're likely to hear from the Republicans or from Fox News. 

Obama's Tsunis Embarrassment
A couple of weeks ago, Long Island property millionaire George Tsunis, Obama's choice to be the US ambassador for Norway made a bumbling mess of question put to him at a Senate hearing. All in all, the nominee seemed embarrassingly ignorant of the country with whom he would be conducting diplomatic relations with.

Tsunis' answers were so ill-informed that they nearly created a diplomatic incident even before the ambassador was confirmed. Norway's Progress Party was so upset by Tsunis labeling them a hate-spewing "fringe minority" group- when in fact, the party forms part of a coalition with the government- that a spokesperson for the party called upon Obama to apologize.
"[Obama] should apologize to the Norwegian people, not just the politicians, because you do not just send someone out who has no idea. You do not treat countries that way."
It appeared as if Tsunis was simply bluffing his way through the hearing without a clue of Norway or its political system. 

Senator McCain who quizzed Tsunis was clearly disgusted by the candidate's answers. He supplied the punchline by concluding his questioning with a classic McCain sneer, saying "I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group on nominees." 
(The other nominees under scrutiny had all of the finesse of university students at the first oral exam.)
Just listen:

Painful, isn't it? News organizations were quick to point out that Tsunis' appointment probably had very much to do with his past role campaign contributor for Obama. MSNBC noted:
Tsunis donated $50,000 to John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, before switching sides and donating $988,550 for Obama’s 2012 campaign, according figure from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In the past, Senator McCain has proved himself to be an SOB when crossed and particularly when it comes to open floor questioning at hearings. If Senator McCain was exasperated by selection, regarding their low level of knowledge and qualifications, he would have a good point. 
After his choice of vice-presidential running mate, this is a man who should know the importance of selecting the right person for the job.

Other Examples
The Tsunis nomination wouldn't be the first time that Obama has doled out the rewards of ambassador position to political fundraisers or campaign contributors. In another case, Telecom executive Donald H. Gips was named the ambassador to South Africa after delivering more than $500,000 in contributions for the Obama war chest. Gips also wrangled two other company executives and collected at least $150,000 more. His actual qualifications for the position were negligible.

Noah Mamet, a 44-year-old political consultant, and longtime fundraiser was appointed as U.S. ambassador to Argentina last July. Critics of the nomination said that his only actual qualification was raising more than $500,000 for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. (That's a little unfair perhaps, Mamet was a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy as well as serving on an international delegation for the National Democratic Institute monitoring the first elections in Sierra Leone after that country’s civil war.) 

The allegation some made against Mamet was that he used his fundraising skills (and donor's money) to advance his own career.
Interviews with about a dozen Democratic donors and fundraisers cast Mamet as a politically savvy operative who worked harder than most for the president’s reelection effort, but who knows just as well how to advance his own interests.
Is this just your usual case of political back-stabbing or a legitimate grievance?

But there are other examples that might raise eyebrows. Outside of being Obama’s former national finance director Rufus Gifford, became as ambassador to Denmark with no career in the diplomatic service or any other related qualification. The same holds true for the former Obama for America finance chair, Matthew Barzun, who is now the ambassador to the United Kingdom. 

In spite of the recent example with Tsunis, perhaps we shouldn't jump to the obvious conclusion.   Nobody is saying that all of the people Obama has appointed are not 100% competent. They may be wonderful at their jobs. However, who can honestly claim they are actually qualified?

While Liberals have a right to be sorely disappointed, Conservatives really don't much room to point and gloat either. Yahoo News- in a weak attempt to "balance" the Tsunis report - notes:
Obama did not start the practice of picking big donors to be ambassadors. And he (probably) won't be the last president to do so. But at a time when Americans mistrust their government and are cynical about their politicians, choices like these don't help.
While that statement isn't inaccurate, it is misleading. True, Obama didn't start the practice by any means but the article also leaves out the fact that Obama isn't the worst offender. What was once called "the spoils system" is alive and well in Washington and has been a common practice for a long long time. In fact, it is a little hard to decide whether this is a Washington tradition, or whether it is just business as usual or a form of corruption. Most likely, it is all of the above.

One thing that can be said without much argument. It was Republican strategist  Karl Rove that took the practice to a whole new level. (We will save that for the second part of this series.)

A Look Back: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Nixon
The practice of using the ambassadorial positions to reward friends and/or political contributors is as old as dirt. For instance, Joseph Kennedy, father of the Kennedy dynasty, was rewarded with a high level cabinet position and also became ambassador to the United Kingdom after he donated, loaned, and raised a substantial amount of money for Roosevelt's 1934 campaign. 

President Nixon was quite blunt (privately) about his own use. In fact, he put his own presidential price tag for ambassador posts. According to a Washington Post story , on one of his secret White House tapes, President Nixon in June of 1971 told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman:
"My point is, my point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000."
Haldeman didn't blink an eye and even set the minimal donation threshold. He replied:
"I think any contributor under $100,000 we shouldn't consider for any kind of thing."
On the tape he cited the example of  Fred J. Russell, a millionaire California real estate baron and Republican donor who went on to be named ambassador to Denmark.  
Another example from the Nixon era was Ruth Lewis Farkas, who was appointed Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1973 after she and her husband, the founder of the Alexander's department stores, contributed $300,000 to President Richard M. Nixon's re-election campaign. 

After giving $300,000 to Nixon's campaign, Arthur Kittredge Watson, a chairman of the board of IBM World Trade, and vice chairman and director of IBM, quit his job, and was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to France. That particular appointment was to have some embarrassing consequences for the Nixon administration. 

Only a year into his job, according to a Jack Anderson report, Watson allegedly made a nuisance of himself on a Pam Am flight. On that occasion, he was shouting for more Scotch, grabbing at hostesses and trying to stuff money down their blouses. When denied an in-flight drink, Watson began calling the stewardess a "bitch" and threatened to have her fired. Eventually, he passed out and, according to witnesses, began foaming at the mouth. And it wasn't even the first time the dipsomaniac diplomat had made a public spectacle of himself. 
This was the man Nixon had also chosen to handle extremely sensitive diplomatic negotiations with Communist China. 

Nixon's attitude toward career diplomats was hostile, calling them “intellectual and emotional eunuchs and not worthy of representing the United States.” 
Rather than seeing ambassador rewards as a corrupt practice, Nixon took the rather surprising position that wealthy people- by virtue of their wealth alone- made wonderful ambassadors.
“Some posts require wealthy people,” Nixon said. “Big contributors in many instances make better ambassadors, particularly where American economic interests are involved.”
But then such rationalizations for corrupt practices were pretty much what Nixon was all about.

In PART TWO, we will review the more recent history of the practice with the Bush father and son.