Big Dem Donors Score Plum Ambassadorships*

By Caitlin Taylor

May 28, 2009 2:13pm

ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Kirit Radia report:

Yo Gabba Gabba, indeed.

President Obama last night announced his intention to nominate a dozen individuals to key ambassadorships. Among them: entertainment executive and Democratic fundraiser Charles Rivkin, who the president has tapped to be Ambassador to France.

In 2005 Rivkin became president and CEO of W!LDBRAIN, an award-winning entertainment company that produces the Nickelodeon hit “Yo Gabba Gabba!” He served as the co-finance chair in California of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

President Obama also named the former Vice Chairman of Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking Louis Susman to be Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland.

Susman, too, was a top fundraiser for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign. Four years before that he was the national finance chairman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Of the dozen ambassadors named last night, one third — four — have experience serving in government posts abroad:  Christopher William Dell, named to be Ambassador to the Republic of Kosovo; Patricia A. Butenis, to be Ambassador to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Republic of Maldives;  Robert S. Connan, to be Ambassador to the Republic of Iceland; and Thomas A. Shannon, to be Ambassador to the Federative Republic of Brazil.

The other eight – while they have myriad other accomplishments — do not appear to have such credentials, despite President Obama’s pledge on January 9 that he would have civil servants “wherever possible” serve in foreign posts.

“We have outstanding public servants,” the president said, “and I’ve spoken with Secretary of State designee, Hillary Clinton, about the importance of rejuvenating the State Department. I want to recruit young people into the State Department to feel that this is a career track that they can be on for the long term. And so, you know, my expectation is that high quality civil servants are going to be rewarded."

The president did at the time allow that there would be some political appointees to ambassadorships. 

“There probably will be some,” he said. “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 — through the ranks of the civil service.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs today praised the president for being "exceedingly forthcoming" in January about political appointees.

"Yesterday we rolled out a number of both career and non- career ambassadorial appointments," Gibbs said. "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 is — 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."

Gibbs described Rivkin as "a friend of the president" who speaks French and "who has a strong professional background, desires to serve this country.  And the president believes he’ll be good — he’ll be good as the next ambassador to France."

Of course, appointing big donors and pals to plum ambassadorships is nothing new.

As was reported at the time, the first 35 diplomatic appointments of this kind made by President Bush donated an average of $141,110 to him and other GOP campaigns and committees in the previous election cycle.

As ABC News’ Justin Rood points out, this 1908 New York Times story asks, “Can a poor man represent the United States in these latter days in a diplomatic capacity in Europe?”

The American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents US diplomats, says that it “urges that only the most qualified individuals be appointed to represent the United States critical interests around the world, especially as ambassadors.”

The organization has urged that that the non-career portion of ambassadors be reduced from the informal historical average of 30 percent to a maximum of 10 percent. By its current totals, AFSA estimates that President Obama’s political non-career appointees are somewhere in between those two percentages.

AFSA cautions that the jury is still out on what the final percentage of political appointees will be as there are 37 ambassador positions still unfilled.

- Jake Tapper and Kirit Radia

* This post has been updated with quotes from Gibbs from the briefing.

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