White House Defends Ambassador Picks

The White House press corps grilled spokesman Robert Gibbs today over the number of ambassadorships that President Obama has handed out so far to fund-raisers and politicians, as opposed to career diplomats. Included among them was Charles Rivkin, the CEO of Wild Brain Inc., the company that produces the popular “Yo Gabba Gabba!,” who was nominated to be ambassador to France. Gibbs defended Rivkin’s qualifications and that of other nominees. (ABC News’ Jake Tapper leads his story with the line, “Yo Gabba Gabba, indeed.”)

The administration has to have been prepared for some scrutiny of the picks, after the president himself signaled last January that a certain number of the appointees would not go to career diplomats. Some groups are calling on the administration to fill only 10% of the foreign posts with political appointees, but it looks like Obama’s percentage will be somewhere between 10% and 30%. I’ll have more on this later, but my guess is the whole issue of career diplomats vs. friends and fund-raisers will create some waves for a bit, perhaps only in foreign policy circles, and will fall by the wayside unless some serious baggage comes up on one of his appointees. It’s pretty much in keeping with what has happened at the start of previous administrations.

Here’s the transcript:

QUESTION: Robert, at least four of the ambassadorial nominees the President announced yesterday were big-money raisers for his campaign.  Is that changing the way Washington works when he makes appointments like that?

GIBBS:  Mark, I think you may know that the President was asked in the transition and said there will be some — let me quote him — “political appointees serving abroad.  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 civil service.” 

I think yesterday we rolled out a number of both career and non-career ambassadorial appointments.  I think you see a group of committed individuals and proven professionals that are eager to serve their country.  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 — like Miguel Diaz to become our ambassadorial appointment to the Vatican, somebody who has a distinguished record — or a Congressman like Tim Roemer, who has served on the 9/11 Commission and with some distinction in Congress, to be our ambassador to India.  So I think the President was exceedingly forthcoming in that in January.

QUESTION: Back on ambassadorships.  Traditionally, the post in Paris and London do go to personal friends of the President, as opposed to career diplomats.  What are Mr. Rivkin’s qualifications to be ambassador to France?  Does he speak French? Is he a close personal friend of the President?

GIBBS:  He does, and is a friend of the President.  I think the President saw him in the last few days.  Again, as I said — and I’ll be happy to give you a bio for —

QUESTION: We’ve got the bio you put out, but it doesn’t address that.

GIBBS:  Doesn’t address?

QUESTION: His specific qualifications.

GIBBS:  Well, again, I think there are — as I said a minute ago, there are both career and non-career people that are appointed —

QUESTION: Understand.

GIBBS: I think that Mr. Rivkin is somebody obviously who has a strong professional background, desires to serve this country, and the President believes he’ll be good as the next ambassador to France.

QUESTION: And Mr. Sussman for Great Britain or for the United Kingdom is — what his —

GIBBS: He speaks English.  (Laughter.) 

Yes.

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