Hollywood Ties Become Liability for Two of Obama's Ambassador Picks

5:00 AM PST 04/02/2014 by Tina Daunt
Illustration by: Edwin Fotheringham

Television producer Colleen Bell and political strategist Noah Mamet wait months for Senate approval during an unusually nasty confirmation process.

This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Washington's heated political climate has left a pair of prominent Hollywood political activists in the cold. Television producer Colleen Bell and political strategist Noah Mamet were nominated by President Obama in 2013 to be U.S. ambassadors to Hungary and Argentina, respectively. But the appointments remain pending in the Senate, and their Hollywood ties have become a target for Republicans.

Ambassador appointments long have been among the prized rewards for political fundraising, and Hollywood's key role in financing Obama's 2012 re-election campaign was recognized with five diplomatic nominations. Three candidates -- Los Angeles-based financial adviser John Emerson as ambassador to Germany, HBO executive James Costos to Spain and former Davis Entertainment producer Rufus Gifford to Denmark -- sailed through confirmation hearings, which traditionally have been ceremonial and celebratory affairs.

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Then, in November, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., frustrated by the GOP's obstruction of Obama's nominations for judicial and regulatory offices, adopted the "nuclear option," modifying the Senate's rules on filibusters. The partisan warfare that erupted soon spilled over to the Foreign Relations Committee, and suddenly ambassador nominees became pawns.

Although her nomination survived committee review in January, Bell, 47, was ridiculed as a "soap opera producer" who was not qualified to be an ambassador. Mamet, 42, was roasted by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for never having visited Argentina. Both were derided by Foreign Relations Committee member John McCain, R-Ariz., in a February op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, though he did not try to stop the committee from sending Bell's nomination to the full Senate, which has yet to act on her proposed appointment. Mamet's nomination, meanwhile, remains on hold at the committee level.

For Hollywood politicos with ambassador ambitions, the attacks on Bell and Mamet are a sobering reminder that association with glitz and celebrity can make one a political pinata. "This is the right wing angry about Hollywood," says veteran Democratic political consultant Rick Taylor. "It's not life or death. We're talking about ambassadors who will be required to give a lot of dinner parties. And if anyone knows how to do a good dinner party, it's Hollywood people."

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