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.
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.
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.
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.