‘Change’ still hasn’t come to ambassador system, but nomination of 2 Minnesotans draws praise

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama vowed to bring change to the nation’s capital, but there is at least one controversial White House tradition that he has embraced — awarding friends and big donors with plum ambassador positions abroad.

To date, Obama’s ambassador nominees, who include two Minnesotans, have helped to raise millions for the president.

Twenty-one nominees, including their spouses and children, have contributed at least $117,100 to Obama, and have bundled at least $4 million for his 2008 presidential run and another $1.6 million for his inauguration, according to a new analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“This is a time-honored tradition that has long been decried,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “It stands in stark contrast to this administration’s call for change.”

Ambassador nominee Kaplan prominent fundraiser
For example, Sam Kaplan, a prominent Minneapolis attorney who was officially nominated Friday to be the U.S. ambassador to Morocco, also happens to be a longtime fundraising powerhouse for the Democratic Party.

Sam Kaplan
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Sam Kaplan

Since 1989, Kaplan and his wife have given at least $273,000 to Democratic candidates and committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, the Kaplans also gave Obama $9,700 and bundled at least $100,000 for his 2008 presidential bid.

The Senate must approve all nominations, and it is certainly possible that someone who hasn’t been a career diplomat can excel at the job and even bring different and useful skills to the table. But, Krumholz said, it is more about the impression such appointments leave on the public and within the ranks of career foreign service officers, who may spend decades trying to achieve an ambassadorship only to see it go to someone with no professional background in diplomacy or foreign affairs.

“It creates the impression that the process is tainted,” she said “On the one hand, there is the Senate confirmation process, but it does not go far enough to address this perception that these appointments are, in essence, for sale.”

The practice, of course, is nothing new. “Originally, pretty much all federal appointments were matters of political favoritism,” said Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain, and Afghanistan.

Although domestic appointments were largely reformed in the 19th and early 20th century to a merit-based system, ambassadorships have remained a matter of presidential choice, according to Neumann.

Since President John F. Kennedy, roughly 30 percent of all ambassador positions have been filled by so-called “non-career” individuals. The American Academy of Diplomacy has recommended that number be reduced to about 10 percent, or about 17 positions, compared with about 52.

A look at the Center for Responsive Politics’ ambassador data

“There have been many outstanding non-career Ambassadors appointed by recent Presidents, and we support the continuation of the appointment of some non-career Ambassadors as a way to tap the unique capacities of America in our representation abroad,” the Academy wrote in a letter (PDF) to Obama last year.  “But too often Ambassadorships have served as political rewards for unqualified candidates.”

After criticism of Bush, Obama defends his choices
As a candidate, Obama criticized President George W. Bush for rewarding his donors and friends with key positions. Now, however, the Obama administration has unequivocally dismissed criticism of the president’s business-executive and big-time-bundler ambassador nominees, including an old college roommate, former Sen. Tom Daschle’s ex-wife and the chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.

“It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that there are not going to be some excellent public servants but who haven’t come through the ranks of the civil service,” Obama said at a Jan. 9 press conference, according to a report from Bloomberg News Service.

During a May 28 briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs also sought to justify the ambassador nominees as a whole, calling the diverse group “committed individuals and proven professionals.”

“Some of those individuals were fundraisers, some of those were career ambassadors, some of those were people that left either teaching or some other thing like that,” Gibbs said at the time.

Miguel Diaz
Miguel Diaz

Minnesota’s other ambassador nominee, Miguel Diaz, was a professor of theology at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict before Obama selected him to be the U.S. ambassador to Vatican City.

If approved, Diaz would be the first Hispanic to serve as ambassador to the Holy See. Before teaching in Minnesota, Diaz taught religious studies and theology at three other universities, including Notre Dame. He is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian.

Diaz donated $1,000 to Obama’s presidential campaign. He also served on the campaign’s Catholic advisory board.

In May, Cathleen Kaveny, a Notre Dame law and theology professor who also served on the advisory committee, told The Associated Press that the appointment was a prudent choice.

“He’s not a big donor, he’s not a big politician. He’s a professor,” she told the AP at the time. “He’s someone very knowledgeable about the Catholic tradition and Catholic theology. What you see is President Obama taking seriously not just Catholicism as a political force but as an intellectual force.”

Thus, some argue that it is not as simple as “career” versus “non-career,” or even donor versus non-donor, when selecting appropriate ambassadors.

Veteran ambassador Mondale defends Minnesota choices
Former Vice President Walter Mondale — perhaps the most famous ambassador to come from Minnesota — defended the appointments of both Diaz and Kaplan in a recent interview with MinnPost.

“I know Sam Kaplan and Sylvia [Sam’s wife] very well,” said Mondale, who served as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1993 to 1996. “They are very qualified and gifted people … and they merit the position.”

Kaplan is a founding member of Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan, a well-established Minnesota law firm that counts TCF Financial Corp., Polaris Industries and the Minnesota Twins among its clients. If accepted, Kaplan would be among a small group of American Jewish diplomats positioned in the Muslim world.

Walter Mondale
REUTERS/Keith Bedford
Walter Mondale

Mondale emphasized, however, that ambassadorships are not just about symbolism or throwing nice parties and luxuriating in fine accommodations for that matter.

“The ambassador is the representative of the U.S. in his country,” Mondale said. “He is the first representative of the president and in charge of the entire diplomatic effort in the embassy.”

Mondale recalled having to handle serious situations while in Japan, including negotiations with North Korea and an explosive trial where three U.S. Marines were convicted of raping a 12-year-old Japanese girl.

“It wasn’t just meetings and receptions,” Mondale said. “There was a lot of hard work to do.”

Although Mondale called the Morocco appointment “very challenging,” he predicted that Kaplan would excel at it.

As a moderate Arab nation and a U.S. ally, the country could possibly play a vital role arranging peace agreements in the Middle East, according to Mondale.

“It’s a place where America has had friendly relations and where we can gain strength in that part of the world,” Mondale said.

Ambassador ‘Charm School’ a must for nominees
To get ready for the job, all nominees must go through a two-week ambassador training crash course, nicknamed the “Charm School.”

Diaz and his wife, Marian, attended the ambassador seminar here last month. The Kaplans are currently in the nation’s capital in their second week of training.

Despite its nickname, the school does not really focus on nations’ etiquette, customs or protocol. Instead, would-be ambassadors — career and non-career alike — learn about the internal structure of an embassy, an ambassador’s unique responsibilities, government ethics, best leadership methods, risk management, and working with Washington from abroad.

Diaz called the training “informative and engaging” in an email sent to MinnPost this week. He said he could not comment further. Kaplan could not be reached.

During their time in Washington, the ambassador nominees also meet with the president, the secretary of state and members of the intelligence, national security and counter-terrorism communities.
“We have an extra day for the non-career folks because it is sort of like drinking from the old fire hose” in terms of all the information there is to absorb in a short time, said Thomas B. Robertson, the dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute.

Robertson, who is a career foreign service officer, called himself a “big backer of political appointments.”

“Clearly, a non-career ambassador has that much more to learn, but it is not exclusively the experience that a career person knows more about the country, or issues, they are dealing with,” he said.

Robertson, however, acknowledged that career officers have to face certain realities with the current system. For instance, “We understand, from early on, that there is not much chance we are going to get a call for an embassy in Europe,” Robertson said.

“Of course, for us career folks, many of us look forward to, if we do well, getting the call [to be an ambassador] at some point,” Robertson said. “But, the political reality of the world that we live in is that we all get less calls.”

But, this year’s nomination process is far from complete, and some say it is too early to tell if the Obama administration will ultimately revise the overall makeup of U.S. ambassadorships. Currently, Obama has nominated individuals to only a small fraction of the roughly 173 ambassador positions.

“Most administrations front-load the appointments of major donors,” said Neumann. “So, it is not possible to say at this point whether the total picture will look different from the past.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/23/2009 - 12:49 pm.

    You could look at this another way — all of the people who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign who aren’t being made ambassadors. Kaplan and Diaz are from the very upper echelon of suitable people for these positions. Compare this to some of the people previous presidents have named and there is no comparison. Shirley Temple Black? Publisher Michael M. Wood, who W used to mountain biking with? John Price, who deceived two investors out of millions. Yes Kaplan is a big donor — but I beleive he is because he wants to see change, not be a big shot and hang around at the capital.

  2. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/23/2009 - 02:01 pm.

    I don’t question Diaz being a subject of the article since it’s about ambassadors from Minnesota. However, I’m very uncomfortable looking at him as possibly a donor who bought an ambassadorship. I can’t believe ambassadorships can be had for $1,000, and Diaz seems quite qualified for the Vatican appointment.

    Though Sam Kaplan seems like a very nice guy and he has the people skills for the job, so do lots of other people. Appointing donors or otherwise connected people who don’t have clear qualifications just smells bad. If Kaplan turns out to have had some particular experience, like he has lived in the region, I’ll happily take him out of the donor-ambassador category.

  3. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 06/23/2009 - 06:11 pm.

    Back in 2007, former Republican Senator David Durenberger had this to say about Sam Kaplan:

    “If you’re both good and honest at what you do, you don’t create those kinds of enemies,” says Durenberger. “Sam and Ralph are always out front about what they think. Their biggest clients, and in Sam’s case politicians, seek Sam and Ralph out for their judgment. In politics you quickly learn to rely on people whose judgment has been right, consistently.

    “And also with those two, I have never felt an ounce-not one ounce-of self-serving in their advice and thinking. And God,” Durenberger laughs, “have I been around a lot of self-serving people in the political realm.”


    If we could all agree to make money less important in the policital equation, maybe money’s influence on all aspects of our public policy and administration could be reduced.

    But we start from where we are, not where we wish we were. (And folks who support the world-as-it-is relating to money in politics are poorly positioned to complain about individual results of a system they support – just because it’s someone from the other side of the aisle.)

    And in the world of where-we-are, major contributors are included in the scrum for appointed positions. The real issue is whether they deserve to rise up out of that scrum and get the job because they have the ability to do the job.

    Someone of Kaplan’s “intellectual maturity”, sound judgement and widely acknowledged ability to work with all kinds of ego-charged shakers and movers in a highly effective and yet “diplomatic” way would seem to be very well suited to the job of ambassador.

  4. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/23/2009 - 06:12 pm.

    What we need to do is somehow separate donor from future potential government asset, while leaving the donor to continue to do all he or she can do to get their person elected.. If everyone who donates to a political campaign is eliminated from serving in the government, huge numbers of generous donors must sit on the sideline. However, I admit that it always looks suspicious that donors are given jobs, posts, or positions. When Republicans are in power, Democrats criticize them. When Democrats are in power the Republicans criticize. And the press criticizes all the time, too, unless the person is a journalist, teacher, author or former politician and then all is forgiven. I think there needs to be some sort of test or class or degree or something. Sure, patronage may continue, but at least we don’t get those dolts who say they looked at a map and can’t find the Third World. But in most countries of the world, an election is a true collaboration. People from different walks of life and opinions, glom on to a candidate and do all they can for him. (Here it’s an advertising and celebrity blitz.) But that is the way it is supposed to be – a group of people working to move the world, if ever so slightly, in a better direction. But we naturally assume a whole “it’s not what you know it’s who you know” attitude like the difference between Sam Kaplan and some loading dock employee at a downtown hotel is that Sam has more rich friends.

  5. Submitted by TJ Pavey on 06/23/2009 - 07:09 pm.

    People have to get on the radar of the administration in the first place. To do so people either need to be an elite in the appointment area or be large donors. People who are well qualified and large donors are obviously going to be the top choices. Getting elected cannot be done alone. If you aren’t going to reward your supporters, then no one will support you. Right or wrong, that is just how it is. As long as the appointments are qualified, I have no problem with it. I read a good comparison between Clinton and Bush regarding appointments after the Brown/FEMA disaster. Clinton also readily appointed his friends and donors but the qualifications of his appointments made Bush’s look like high school drop-outs.

  6. Submitted by susan Lenfestey on 06/24/2009 - 12:40 am.

    I’ve done some mini-bundling in my day, less than Sam Kaplan, more than Miguel Diaz. Alas, President Obama did not appoint me to be an ambassador to anywhere.

    There are many reasons for that. To describe Sam and Sylvia as big donors is like describing Picasso’s Guernica as a big painting. There’s a whole lot more going on there. Sam and Sylvia are gracious and generous, smart and well-informed, and they work their tails off.

    The question in their case is not whether there’s a patronage system in place, it’s what are we going to do without them?

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