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

Typically, the court of St. James’s requires deep-pocketed ambassadors. Susman’s immediate predecessors under George W. Bush were rich, big donors. William Farish, a multimillionaire horse breeder, got on well with the queen because of their shared love of horses, “but diplomacy,” says Ronald Spiers, who twice served as acting ambassador in London, “is not chatting with the queen about horses.” Robert Tuttle, owner of one of the largest auto dealerships in America, was often dismissed as a car salesman (he was, among other accomplishments, chairman of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art), but he got good reviews here and abroad for being active and visible. “Both he and his wife were important figures on the scene,” says Raymond Seitz. “That’s part of an ambassador’s job, too.” During their time at Winfield House, the Tuttles entertained more than 25,000 people.

Susman—who has “made a lot of money since he left [St. Louis],” according to Barbara Eagleton—will be expected to spend from his own account to entertain. Friends say he will get plenty of help on the social front from Margie, who is smart, disciplined, and meticulous—a crack fundraiser for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and for the Lupus Foundation (she suffers from the disease)—and a master at throwing parties. Senator McCaskill calls her “a big, big part of Louis’s success.”

Still, Winfield House will be a challenge, even for Margie Susman. Built in 1936 on a $4.5-million plot by Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress, the mansion sustained extensive German bomb damage during World War II. Hutton sold it to Harry Truman for $1 in 1946 with the understanding that it would be home to the American ambassador, as it has been since 1955.

Margie “can’t stand any sort of mess,” says Eagleton. The new ambassador’s wife quickly decided that the private quarters were not up to snuff and “redecorated everything in like three weeks.” Margie’s taste, adds Eagleton, is “very minimalist. . . . Everything is monochromatic.” (Louis Susman’s spokesman would not comment on whether Susman personally paid for the redecoration.)

No one who knows Susman thinks he’ll simply be America’s host in London. He’s not “a guy who does very well at ceremonial,” says McCaskill. “This is a man who is going to try to see . . . how he can assist Secretary Clinton and President Obama with the foreign policy goals of the U.S.”

In our phone interview in October, I asked Susman to describe a typical workday, and he proceeded to drop some impressive names. “You’re constantly involved in all of the strategic objectives of the United States. I have met with General Petraeus, I’ve met with [the Middle East Envoy] George Mitchell, I’ve met with Chairman Bernanke, I’ve met with Treasury Secretary Geithner. I just finished a meeting with General Stanley McChrystal. I’ve met with the prime minister, I’ve met with his secretary of state and his chancellor. I’ve met with the opposition party leader, David Cameron, and his chief shadow foreign secretary. . . . So it’s a major job with major issues.”

His daily task, he said, is “maintaining and strengthening and nourishing the special relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. Nightly “are dinners, receptions, consultations, pretty well booked between Monday and Friday.

“It’s been like drinking from a fire hose, there’s so much going on,” he said. “I miss golf at my golf clubs.” He also misses the pizza at Mario’s (on Goethe and Dearborn) and “I miss Gibsons Steakhouse a lot.”

Still, as we finished our interview, Susman reflected, “I think that I got the best job in the world. It’s just the highest possible ranking representative in this country and our closest and most dependable ally . . . so I feel very lucky.”


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