Our Man in London: On Louis Susman’s appointment as ambassador to the U.K.

The retired Chicago businessman Louis Susman recently became the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, an appointment widely regarded as the prize for his ferocious fundraising on behalf of the Obama campaign. Derided by the British press as the “vacuum cleaner,” Susman is only the most prominent example of a continuing—and questionable—American tradition

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Susman with his wife, Marjorie, on the day of his ceremonial induction last October at Buckingham Palace
Susman with his wife, Marjorie, on the day of his ceremonial induction last October at Buckingham Palace



A sample of bundlers for Obama who are now ambassadors posted abroad

Though the Susman appointment wasn’t officially announced until May 2009, Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says Obama’s choice was “an open secret” around Chicago. At Susman’s request, before the 2008 election, he and Bouton had met several times to discuss foreign affairs; Bouton calls the retired Citigroup executive an “excellent” choice. In July, Susman zipped through his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—that Citigroup had just received $45 billion in bailout money didn’t merit a question—and Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, swore him in on July 29th. Next came courses for both Lou and Margie at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. Susman had “about a month of various consultations with so many people I couldn’t even begin to tell you,” he recalled.

Arriving in London on August 17th, Susman presented his credentials to the British Foreign Office. Less than two months later, on October 13th, Queen Elizabeth II sent carriages to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square to deliver Susman, wearing morning dress (coat with tails) and a top hat, to Buckingham Palace to present his “ceremonial credentials.”

“I have been fully briefed both by the embassy protocol office and the Buckingham Palace protocol office,” Susman had told me, gravely, a week before the big day. After executing the appropriate bows as he crossed the carpet to greet the queen (she wore a long-sleeved blue dress, pearls, and carried a black handbag on her left arm), he and his party returned to the embassy, where “it is protocol and tradition that the new ambassador provides the carriage driver and the footman with a thimble of brandy,” Susman had explained previously. “And you then have to feed the horses carrots and sugar, and you retreat to your embassy, and you have a reception.”

The pomp, the prestige, the quirky traditions—who wouldn’t thrill at the posting? But Susman can’t hide his sensitivity to the charge that he bought his position. When asked if he had a conversation with Obama about the possibility of an ambassadorship, he snaps, “Of course not, it’s against the law.” (A 1980 law states: “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.” The law’s weak wording seems, over the years, to have negated its impact.)

Susman leaves the impression that he never gave a moment’s thought to what he might gain should Obama win. Several friends tell another story. “I had known for a long time of his interest in getting an ambassadorship,” says William Singer, a Chicago lawyer, who calls Susman “one of my closest friends” and adds that London was Susman’s first choice.

“When it turned out that he raised as much as he did, he began to think, Wow, I bet I can get an ambassadorship if this guy’s elected,” says Barbara Eagleton, who has known Susman since he worked on the 1968 U.S. Senate race of her late husband, Tom, in Missouri. “I think [the Susmans] thought that they were going to get a nice [ambassadorship], but I don’t think they dreamed of getting London.”

Another Missouri friend, Senator Claire McCaskill, offers a different take: “I think it’s unfair to assume that his preoccupation, almost obsession, from sunup to sundown, with getting Barack Obama elected president had anything to do with what was in it for him. . . . I don’t think there has ever been a quid pro quo or a transactional nature to the heart of Lou Susman.”

Like it or not, though, Susman became Exhibit A in the debate over the virtues of naming political appointees (approximately 30 percent of appointments in recent years) as opposed to foreign-service professionals to ambassadorships. To many in Britain and to members of the diplomatic corps, London was a test case of Obama’s campaign criticism of turning donors into ambassadors. They expected “that the London ambassador would be a heavyweight,” says Raymond Seitz, an ambassador to the UK under George H. W. Bush and (for more than a year) Bill Clinton, and the only trained foreign-service professional ever to hold the UK post, “somebody of substance, not necessarily a professional foreign-service officer, but a former senator or a former general or former governor, somebody with political weight and a recognizable profile.”

Both the American Foreign Service Association and the American Academy of Diplomacy had lobbied the candidates during the 2008 campaign to limit political appointments to about 10 percent of the 185 total ambassadorships. Based on Obama’s early appointments, Ronald Neumann predicted that Obama “is ticking to be worse in numbers [than George W. Bush].” In fact, they’re about even. At presstime, 29.7 percent of Obama’s appointments had been political, compared with Bush’s eventual total of approximately 30 percent.

“Why is [President Obama] letting the political appointments office downstairs in the basement of the West Wing hand out these prizes to a bunch of people who have no qualifications whatsoever to do these jobs?” asks Seitz. “As far as they are concerned it’s payoff time. . . . Do they think this approach to foreign policy . . . is good for this country?”

Even the professionals, however, point out that the debate should not be between professional and political but between competent and incompetent. “Who were our early diplomats?” asks Neumann. “Adams, Jefferson, Franklin”—all political appointees. “It’s competence that’s the question.”

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Photography: U.S. Department of State, Johnny Green/PA Wire



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