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Last February, three months after raising more than half a million dollars for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the retired Chicago investment banker Louis Susman took a call from the White House. Susman won’t say who was on the line—it was likely David Jacobson, the Chicago lawyer who worked for Obama during the campaign and went to Washington as Obama’s special assistant for presidential personnel—but Susman will repeat the question he was asked: “‘The president has an intent to nominate you [to be ambassador to the United Kingdom], and, if he does, would you accept?’”
Susman didn’t even pause to check with Marjorie, his wife of 50 years. “I accepted on the spot,” he recalled in a telephone interview from their new home in London.
No surprise that he didn’t need to think it over. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James’s—the official title—is widely considered the most coveted of the 185 ambassadorships the president has to offer. Susman’s predecessors include John Adams, who presented his credentials to King George III in 1785. Five envoys to England went on to become president, four vice president, and ten secretary of state.
Today, Lou and Margie Susman are settling into the 35-room, red brick, neo-Georgian Winfield House in Regent’s Park, surrounded by a private garden second in size only to the one at Buckingham Palace. The posting is as safe as it comes—no worries about a mob storming the embassy—and the one language required is the one language Susman speaks.
By American political standards, Susman, 72, earned the appointment. For 40 years, he has worked the phones tirelessly for Democrats, sucking up cash from friends and associates with such ferocity that he earned the nickname the Vacuum Cleaner or, for short, the Hoover. In 2004, as national finance chairman for John Kerry—they were friends from Nantucket, where both own vacation homes—Susman was said to have been in line for a cabinet position had Kerry won. For the 2008 election, a roster of ambitious Democrats sought Susman’s golden touch. “I’ve had calls from every potential candidate,” he told me in May 2006. A few months later, Susman threw in with the new Illinois senator, Barack Obama, even though the smart money was then touting Hillary Clinton. In all, Susman bundled $247,000 for Obama’s presidential campaign and another $300,000 for his inauguration. The Obama miracle of 2008 marked the first time Susman had backed a presidential winner—and, hence, the first time he and Margie could reap the reward.
But the position has come with a tarnish. Susman’s appointment kicked up the long-standing argument over awarding diplomatic positions to top fundraisers. The London press dripped disdain. “Ultimate Prize for ‘Vacuum Cleaner,’” blared The Daily Telegraph. Why, the Brits demanded, does the United Kingdom (UK) so often get stuck with a buckraker, while almost always dispatching professional diplomats to its embassy in Washington? “We are the only major power that sends nonprofessionals regularly,” says Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. “We’re the only one who thinks this is amateur hour.”
The tradition dates to President Andrew Jackson, but didn’t Obama promise change? “I think that President Obama, as all presidents, choose who they think is the most qualified and deserving person to become an ambassador,” Susman told me last October. “The qualifications are the first order of business, and I think, if it’s relevant, the second order of business would be if they’re deserving.”
Susman is good on the second count; it’s the first that bears watching.
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Illustration: Roberto Parada