When the phone rang at the bar of a Brussels restaurant in 1991, it was extraordinary -- not just because the president of the United States was on the other end, but because the message being delivered by George H.W. Bush flouted more than 200 years of tradition when it comes to how Washington doles out ambassadorships.
In short, not all ambassadorships are created equal.
Raymond Seitz was out to dinner when he was summoned to the bar for that unexpected telephone call more than 20 years ago. It was the White House, telling him to hold for the president of the United States.
What most caught Seitz off guard was what the commander-in-chief said. He told Seitz that he was making him ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.
"You mean to the one in London?" Seitz responded, incredulous. He just wanted to make sure.
Seitz could be excused for what he called his "utter disbelief." After all, in the more than 200-year history of America sending envoys to Britain, no career diplomat had ever been picked for the top post.
It's been 22 years since that phone call -- and it's the last time a career diplomat was selected as the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
"I think they do it once every 200 years," Seitz, 72, joked in an interview from his home in a rural New Hampshire town, where he's now retired.
In the next few weeks, President Barack Obama will once again name an ambassador to London, as well as to a raft of other countries. High-profile political appointees will again likely top the list, with rumors swirling about appointments for Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, and even Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, a top Obama fundraiser.
Reports have surfaced that Caroline Kennedy is being vetted for appointment as a U.S. ambassador to Japan, a choice that would reportedly be well-received in Tokyo because of Kennedy's high visibility. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.
The U.S. sends career diplomats generally to places where it needs them and cannot take chances. Former Republican Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who Obama tapped to represent the country in China during his first term, is an example of a heavyweight political appointee who worked out and was not a campaign bundler. Other hotspots -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt -- are equally sensitive and demanding of more experienced diplomatic hands.
But with the rise and prevalence of money in U.S. politics, ambassadorships to places friendly to America have become increasingly reserved as plum posts for big donors. The British, on the other hand, appoint the best-of-the-best.
While diplomatic relations with every nation are important, the U.S. has no better friend than the U.K.
Despite the “special relationship” Winston Churchill famously described in 1946, the process by which the two countries pick ambassadors has been lopsided.
And it’s been this way for decades. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, appointed Joseph Kennedy, who had helped FDR raise money. President Obama is no different. The man who stepped down from the London post last week is Louis Susman, a Chicago investment banker who helped raise more than $500,000 for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks alongside U.S. Ambassador Louis Susman, second from left, during a visit to the U.S. Embassy, London, Monday, Feb. 25, 2013.
In the next few weeks, Obama is expected to announce his replacement for Susman. Most would be surprised if it's anyone other than a political appointee. It’s expected to be Matthew Barzun, who was the finance chairman of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign that raised almost three-quarters of $1 billion.
“In a way, it’s disappointing,” Seitz said. “I understand the system. I know how it works. I know how these posts are reserved for people with political connections one way or another. More often than not, it’s not the most successful way to go about representing the country … I think we would probably have a more coherent foreign policy if we had our senior posts filled by professionals.”
President Obama made no secret during his 2008 presidential transition of his intention to name at least some political appointees. Approximately 30 percent of his appointments have been political. The other 70 percent have been filled by career diplomats. That is on pace with his predecessors over the last 50 years, according to statistics maintained by the American Foreign Service Association.
Those political appointments are generally awarded to staunch American allies with direct dials to the president, where skilled, experienced Foreign Service officers back up the ambassadors, and the most important decisions are not made at the ambassadorial level.
“In filling these posts, the administration looks for the most qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said. “We have received interest and have recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds. Being a donor does not get you a job in this administration, nor does it preclude you from getting one.”
Not every political appointee is unqualified or doesn’t do a good job. President Bill Clinton, for example, replaced Seitz in London with a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Susman was seen as curious and non-problematic, unlike, for example, Cynthia Stroum, another Obama 2008 fundraiser awarded with the ambassadorship to Luxembourg. She resigned in 2011, a month before a scathing State Department report , eviscerating her management, was released.
‘A joke in London’
Though they don’t always say so to Washington, allies in the diplomatic corps question the efficacy of the most powerful country in the world sending people with such blatant political ties and a dearth of diplomatic experience.
“It often is sort of a joke in London diplomatic circles,” said Erik Goldstein, a professor at Boston University who specializes in British foreign policy and who lived in England when Seitz was ambassador.
Michael Hopkins, senior lecturer on American Foreign Policy at the University of Liverpool and editor of “The Washington Embassy: British Ambassadors to Washington, 1939-1977,” added wryly, “Most Foreign Office officials, if they were to say so, would regard it as ‘disappointing’ or ‘perhaps not the best choice of envoy.’”
Seitz may have been succeeded by a Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, but he was preceded by Henry Catto, a Texan who hung the Lone Star flag at the embassy and placed a four-foot-tall wooden steer on the front lawn.
Former President George W. Bush picked Robert Tuttle, a car dealer from California, who helped raise more than $100,000 for his campaign.
Anna Wintour attends the London Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2012 reception at 10 Downing Street in February 2012 in London.
In December, Wintour, the reported inspiration for titular character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” was rumored to be in the running for -- or at least interested in – the London post. Wintour has been a major supporter of President Obama, helping him raise $500,000 for his 2012 campaign. That possibility was lampooned in the British press with one report deriding her as an “aloof and arrogant ice maiden.”
“They just shake their heads,” Goldstein said. “But they understand the American system and know this is a political reward. This is the price of doing business with the U.S., and you have to deal with the No. 2.”
The No. 2 in the embassies is the deputy chief of mission, a more seasoned career diplomat. It was a position Seitz held in London in the 1980s.
“The deputy chief of mission does most of the work -- they’re almost ambassadorial rank,” Goldstein added. “In effect, what the ambassador of the United States has become is not really a figurehead, but a public face of the embassy … The system has found a way to cope with it, but, in my opinion, it’s not ideal.”
Best of the best
The British send diplomats to Washington at the tops of their fields. The current ambassador, Sir Peter Westmacott, for example, has been a diplomat for 40 years, from Tehran to Ankara to Paris.
“You can count on one hand the number of political appointees,” Hopkins said. But “the overwhelming bulk of them are Foreign Office officials.”
Goldstein added, “The ambassador to Washington is always the top.”
Westmacott, however, defended the U.S.
“It’s a very different system,” the ambassador said. “It’s easy to say that the U.S. system appoints ambassadors using criteria not related to merit or suitability.” But having seen it up close, Westmacott said, “Often, it works very well.”
Even though it might often be donors selected, he added that they generally know the countries well or speak the language. Plus, there’s the intangible of having the president’s ear.
“There’s real value in someone having political clout,” Westmacott said. “That’s not always the case with professional diplomats.” It doesn’t always work out seamlessly, “which is why it’s important to have an excellent deputy which often happens in the U.S.,” he added. “Both have their merits.”
Since World War II, there have been two journalists appointed by the U.K. as well as one other notable exception -- David Ormsby-Gore. Ormsby-Gore had strong political family ties in the U.K. and was appointed to Washington in 1961, ironically, because he was a longtime friend of the young, new American president, John F. Kennedy.
Why the shift
America used to send statesmen and high-ranking officials to Britain. Future presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served in London.
Even the first envoy to be assigned the rank of ambassador for America -- exactly 120 years ago -- was a former secretary of state, Thomas Bayard. But things have changed.
“Since World War II, it’s been used as reward for big donors,” Goldstein said. “It tends to be more political appointees, donor appointees. It’s escalating.”
Scholars point to three reasons for the change, including money in U.S. politics and the difference in the two countries’ political systems; technology that’s made electronic messages, phone calls and transatlantic flights easier; and the power shift from the British Empire to the American superpower after World War II.
Money has become ubiquitous in American politics. With outside groups factored in, more than $2 billion was spent on the presidential election between President Obama and Mitt Romney, the most ever. Romney, like Obama in 2008, actively campaigned for nearly a year and a half.
In Britain, campaigning is far more truncated, lasting only about a month.
Also, American presidents also have a more direct role in picking their ambassadors. In the U.K., ambassadors’ years of service often do not coincide with the election of prime ministers.
But above all, it’s about power. America’s involvement in World War II, and the pivotal role it played, elevated its status on the world stage.
“London was the place to be,” Hopkins said. “Not anymore. Washington was the heart of power after World War II. Britain needed a good person in Washington after that.”
As for Seitz, he's left NATO meetings in Belgium and phone calls with presidents for Orford, N.H., a town of just over 1,000 people nestled in the Connecticut River Valley on the border of Vermont. But he hasn’t completely shied away from the spotlight.
Seitz is now proudly the non-salaried deputy supervisor of the town dump.
“It is a kind of political appointment,” he said, “but I take my duties seriously.”
This story was originally published on Mon Apr 8, 2013 6:13 PM EDT