Asked which entertainment execs among President Obama’s top supporters have been interested in an ambassadorship, a prominent industry political consultant quipped, “Everyone.”
While the answer was an admitted exaggeration, there’s no denying that, considering this is Obama’s final term, those within the extensive community of donors, activists and bundlers who have been involved in his campaign through two election cycles, and who are looking for a foreign posting, see this as a last chance.
Four years ago, Obama tapped two entertainment industry figures, music exec Nicole Avant and former Jim Henson Co. CEO Charles Rivkin, to serve as ambassadors to the Bahamas and France, respectively. This time around, many more people are in the mix. The problem is that of about 150 names interested across the country, the president has only about 30 spots to fill. The rest of the positions are in nations that traditionally go to career diplomats.
Those in Los Angeles said to be under consideration include John Emerson, president of private client services at Capitol Group and former chairman of the Los Angeles Music Center; Ken Solomon, CEO of the Tennis Channel; and Colleen Bell, a soap opera producer and philanthropist. All were top bundlers for Obama and helped raise more than $1 million each. Emerson and Solomon co-chaired the re-election campaign’s Southern California finance team. All three declined to comment or did not return inquiries for comment.
While Emerson has been mentioned for a post in Germany, and Solomon in Australia, as of last week, few decisions had been made, leaving much of the entertainment donor community guessing as to what happens next and who goes where. “Nobody really knows,” says one top Los Angeles fundraiser, nothing that just three or four White House officials were holding the cards. A few months ago, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, also a top bundler, was reported to be a leading contender for Great Britain, but since then has taken her name out of the running, and Vogue has issued statements saying she is happy where she’s at.
For those accustomed to quick answers, the process can be excruciatingly long and unpredictable. To express interest and not be too brazen about it requires a delicate dance. It’s considered bad form to actually approach the president; instead, the process is to go through fundraising channels and other connections. A story still circulates about a Los Angeles fundraiser for John McCain who, during the 2008 campaign, told the candidate of his desire to be an ambassador. The frontal assault showed a lack of necessary skills.
“What that says is you are not looking to serve the president, but to serve yourself,” says another prominent fundraiser.
Those able to work through proper channels are asked for a roster of countries they feel would be a good fit for them, but nothing is certain until Obama approves the list, and potential nominees must survive a vetting process. In the domino-like process of placement, a hoped-for country may very well not be the one offered. It can be like a game of Risk, but with Senate confirmation required.
The speculation over who gets what also is tinged with talk of who raised the most, even though a greater advantage is having a personal relationship with the president.
While there is an undeniable cachet to serving as an ambassador — TV Guide founder Walter Annenberg was forever known by the title after he served in Great Britain under President Nixon — the job is not without drawbacks. The salary, less than $200,000, is hefty in middle-class terms, but not so great given that many under consideration have high net worth, and will have to foot the bill to make up the difference in hosting embassy events.
Moreover, showbiz figures often have a challenge ahead of them to convince staffs and local politicos that they are skilled in diplomacy. When Ronald Reagan tapped actor John Gavin to serve as ambassador to Mexico, one of that country’s officials sniped to Time magazine, “Maybe we should have sent Cantinflas to Washington.”
When Rivkin was appointed ambassador to France in 2009, much of the focus was on his experience as the head of the Henson Co. and later WildBrain Media, the maker of “Yo Gabba Gabba!” despite the fact he had served on Obama’s homeland security committee and his father had been a diplomat under two presidents. A White House reporter even asked then-spokesman Robert Gibbs whether Rivkin knew French. (He does.) In fact, a State Dept. inspector-general’s report from last year called Rivkin “a dynamic and visionary non-career ambassador,” expanding social media use and reaching out to ethnic minority communities in Paris.
Nevertheless, career diplomats have in the past urged Obama to keep political appointments to a minimum, characterizing such postings as part of a bygone era of patronage that doesn’t send a good message about government, and worse, can create an embarrassment if the choice is not a good fit. There’s also a degree of jealousy over the prospect of a major donor or bundler getting a choice country, where political tensions are minimal, while careerists are posted in the world’s hot spots.
On the other hand, the Council of American Ambassadors, an association of non-career diplomats, points to the strengths political appointees have that careerists do not: They know the president, which can offer a more candid line of communications to the White House; and they are more likely to think outside the box in approaching their duties. Avant often focused on “soft power” initiatives, like enhanced relations with local law enforcement, and had the connections to bring in Magic Johnson as a motivational speaker.
Still, skepticism among media and career diplomats toward political appointees has been so rampant for so long that there’s a 60-year-old Irving Berlin musical about it. “Call Me Madam” starred Ethel Merman as a coarse socialite tapped by Harry Truman to serve as ambassador to a European country, only to be met with resistance from the charge d’affaires at the American embassy. In the musical, the socialite wins the country over with her charms, just as Perle Mesta, on whom the story was based, did in real life after Truman assigned her to Luxembourg. In 2010, more than 60 years since her posting in their country, the Luxembourg embassy in D.C. hosted an evening of the music from “Call Me Madam” in her honor.
That’s the kind of legacy biz execs can relate to.