Keep Your Friends Close and Your Campaign Donors Closer

Caroline Kennedy is hardly the first campaign bundler to be rewarded with a plum diplomatic position.


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What does it take to be a diplomat? For many, it just takes deep pockets and thick Rolodexes flush with the right numbers. President Barack Obama has certainly followed the White House tradition of favoring many of his “bundlers,” fundraisers who collect large sums, frequently in the neighborhood of $500,000, with political appointments, including ambassadorships. High-profile backer Caroline Kennedy, who was just named ambassador to Japan, is just one of the better-known examples.

During his first term, the ratio of career diplomats to political donors appointed to ambassadorships was about 65:35, according to Bloomberg, roughly the going average over the past 30 years. In Obama’s second term, though, political appointees have jumped up to 56 percent. It’s not hard to understand why these fundraisers would want the gigs: Their new abodes include digs like the 12+ acre Winfield House estate that comes with a posting in London, or the 5,000-bottle wine cellar at the ambassador’s Villa Taverna residence in Rome. But using important diplomatic positions as rewards for campaign cash may not exactly inspire confidence in the countries where these well-heeled globe trotters are stationed.

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John Roos: If approved for the Tokyo posting, Kennedy will replace John Roos, a Silicon Valley lawyer and the co-chair of Obama’s California fundraising committee in 2008. While some critics have voiced concerns that Kennedy will be uncomfortable in the very public role of ambassador, that was never a problem for Roos. In 2010, he was the first U.S. ambassador to attend a memorial service for the victims of the Hiroshima bombing, and he was active in promoting U.S. aid after Japan’s severe earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. He recently tweeted from his eclectic, bilingual Twitter page:

Cynthia Stroum: It may be the second wealthiest country in Europe, but the diplomatic stakes don’t get much lower than the ambassadorship to Luxembourg. The combination of luxury and limited international clout make it an ideal posting for a political appointee, and according to DiploPundit, only three U.S. ambassadors to Luxembourg have had diplomatic credentials to speak of over the past 50 years. It seemed like a good place to send Stroum, who raised at least $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign, despite her previous work having been almost exclusively in venture capital and philanthropic pursuits. She resigned from the post in 2011 in advance of a devastating report by the State Department inspector general which detailed Stroum’s management style as “aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating.” And though she was particularly demanding of her staff, her own attention was frequently focused on the remodeling of the ambassador’s residence. Stroum also insisted on being reimbursed for a new bed after she didn’t like the king-size bed the residence came with — despite being turned down by the State Department for the funds twice. No wonder some of her top deputies at the mission eagerly applied for and accepted transfers to hardship posts in Baghdad and Kabul.

Robert Mandell: After Stroum’s disastrous stint in Luxembourg, Obama went back to his donor base to replace her. He settled on Robert Mandell, a residential and commercial property developer from Florida who donated at least $80,000 to Obama’s 2008 campaign and inauguration. He served on a number of state and local commissions, and worked on the President’s Export Council, a White House advisory group focusing on increasing U.S. international trade. Mandell has begun an outreach program, visiting students at Luxembourg high schools, and has developed a more cordial reputation than his predecessor. “He is interested in listening and speaking to people like me and exchanging ideas,” the French ambassador to Luxembourg was quoted telling Orlando Magazine. “He is my favorite colleague.”


Bruce Oreck: A tax attorney who raised $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign and an additional $75,000 for his inauguration and worked on Obama’s finance committee, Oreck — yes, he’s the son of the vacuum magnate — parlayed his noblesse into the ambassadorship to Finland in 2009. His most headline-grabbing achievement has been a joke Christmas card Oreck shared with friends in 2012 after being featured on the cover of Finland’s ProBody magazine. The card, which showcases some serious muscles, a throwback to the ambassador’s bodybuilding days, got some laughs, but outspoken State Department critic Peter Van Buren didn’t see the humor — he named Oreck his “State Department Douche of the Week.” The reviews haven’t been all bad, though; DiploPundit praised Oreck’s determination to forge ahead with a new embassy facility and his willingness to forebear the inconvenience of the construction, even celebrating Independence Day at the embassy in hard hats.

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Jeff Bleich: President Obama first met Bleich as president of the Harvard Law Review — Bleich contacted Obama to try to recruit him for a clerkship for a D.C. Circuit Court judge. Obama declined but they kept in touch as Bleich rose to prominence practicing law in California. In 2008, Bleich joined Obama’s finance committee and co-chaired his California campaign, and got the nod for the Australia post in 2009. Bleich has taken to life in Canberra well — a profile by the Sydney Morning Herald describes him as affable and says that his family has “gone ‘completely native'” — and his only notable misstep may have been when Bleich took to the embassy’s Facebook page to entreat Aussies not to pirate episodes of Game of Thrones.

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Nicole Avant: As the daughter of music executive Clarence Avant, Nicole Avant grew up as Hollywood royalty, and became vice president of Interior Music Publishing at 30 years old. She helped pull together $500,000 for Obama’s 2008 campaign, prompting her nomination to be ambassador to the Bahamas. By the 2012 campaign, she was back to bundle funds again, having resigned in November 2011. “I want to start by thanking my dear friend, Ambassador Avant — love, love saying that,” Michelle Obama remarked at a fundraiser at Avant’s Beverly Hills home (as described by the Hollywood Reporter) in May 2012. The State Department, though, wasn’t impressed by Avant’s tenure. A January 2012 report by the State’s inspector general describes Avant as an absentee ambassador: Between September 2009 and November 2011, Avant spent 276 days away from the embassy; despite the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of her enduring a “long-distance marriage” as a result of her post and noted that she frequently stayed at her home in Los Angeles, or worked from the ambassador’s residence in Nassau rather than from the embassy. Her travel “contributed to a perception of indifference” and “poor mission management,” according to the report.

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Matthew Barzun: He got his start by helping develop CNET in the mid-’90s, but since 2008, Barzun has been in a fundraising-and-diplomacy cycle. He developed low-cost, high-payoff fundraisers for Obama’s 2008 campaign and was rewarded with the ambassadorship to Sweden from 2009-2011. During his time in Stockholm, Barzun brought the embassy into the digital age and started an “Embassy Road Show” to get U.S. diplomats out of the capital. “I had to learn the Swedish word for bittersweet, bitterljuv, because that’s the feeling I have,” he told Swedish news site the Local upon his departure. Barzun came back to be Obama’s chief fundraiser in 2012 and will soon be heading to the U.S. embassy in London. The Brits seem cautiously optimistic about his new appointment: “He may not be as colourful as US Vogue editor Anna Wintour — long rumoured to be his rival for the post — would have been,” Alex Spillius writes in the Telegraph, “but Mr Barzun, 42, possesses impeccable credentials as a modern American ambassador and is very much the president’s man.”

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.

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