Four Hollywood Donors on Obama Shortlist for Ambassador Jobs (Exclusive)
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Attention, Hollywood political donors: The Obama administration has begun the delicate post-election process of deciding which key supporters to reward with coveted diplomatic appointments, and THR has learned that at least four fundraisers with close showbiz connections are under consideration.
Among the Barack Obama loyalists under consideration for ambassadorial appointments are Los Angeles-based White House decorator Michael Smith, 47; Hollywood philanthropist and television producer Colleen Bell, 45; industry money manager John Emerson, 57; and Tennis Channel chief Ken Solomon, 49. And the Westside L.A. dinner-party circuit has started buzzing with conversations about who else might be in the mix this time around.
Some leading Obama backers -- like super-fundraiser and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg -- have too many obligations to consider a few years in Paris or the Bahamas. Political insiders, however, suggest reports that Vogue editor Anna Wintour might be open to becoming ambassador to France are accurate. The post is held by former Jim Henson Co. CEO Charles Rivkin, one of two Hollywood supporters Obama appointed to ambassadorships following his 2008 victory. The other, Nicole Avant, a music executive and wife of Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, served as ambassador to the Bahamas from 2009 to 2011.
According to sources, many of the candidates were among 100 guests invited to the White House in early December for an East Room dinner at which Obama and the first lady thanked longtime fundraisers and Democratic activists for their support. Among the Hollywood-connected contingent at the event were Emerson; Solomon; Wintour; Smith and his partner, HBO executive James Costos; Bell and her husband, soap opera producer Bradley Bell; political and philanthropic consultant Noah Mamet; Harvey Weinstein; and Hollywood political consultant Andy Spahn.
UPDATE: Smith rep Marc Szafran tells THR the decorator is not a candidate: "Michael has never nor would he ever be on a list of potential ambassadors. He has a business that requires his presence and contracts that go well into the next three years, so this was never even the remotest possibility."
In 2008, Obama reached more deeply into the ranks of his Hollywood supporters for ambassadorships than any chief executive in years. Actor and former SAG president John Gavin was appointed by President Reagan (also a former SAG chief) to represent the U.S. in Mexico, and Shirley Temple Black was sent by President Ford to Ghana and later by President George H.W. Bush to Czechoslovakia. Both turned out to be highly successful diplomats -- Temple Black because of her charm and Gavin because of his fluent Spanish and knowledge of Mexican culture.
Rivkin, who speaks French and spent part of his boyhood in Europe while his father was an ambassador, universally is regarded as a successful representative to France. An independent audit of his tenure reported that "under his leadership, the embassy's public diplomacy activities have blossomed." One of Rivkin's goals, the report noted, was to improve the image of the U.S. in the eyes of average French citizens, especially young people. So Rivkin established active Facebook and Twitter accounts, and both Rivkin and Avant have been credited with strategically deploying American celebrities to reach out to underprivileged youth. Avant called on Magic Johnson and Holly Robinson Peete, and Rivkin deployed Samuel L. Jackson, Woody Allen and Jodie Foster to help with events.
Bill Carrick, a longtime Los Angeles Democratic consultant, says it doesn't surprise him that Obama is looking to people in entertainment. "Obviously, the president had enormous support in Hollywood," he says. "They are much more politically active as a group."
According to an administration insider: "There is no single thing that qualifies you to be an ambassador, but they have one thing in common: They have all earned the trust and respect of the president. He isn't going to choose someone just because they've raised $500,000. He has to know them."
The process works like this: White House personnel reach out to certain supporters to see whether they would accept an ambassadorship if offered. Those on the shortlist are vetted and interviewed. After the secretary of state is appointed -- it's likely going to be Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. -- the president will meet with that person and go over the list of open ambassadorships to decide which candidates should be career diplomats and which should be political appointees. "There's a fine line between indicating that you have an interest in being an ambassador and actually campaigning for it," notes Carrick. "You have to do that with discretion and, well, diplomacy."
Usually, political appointees -- who typically serve two to four years overseas -- are sent to Europe, Australia, South Africa and, recently, Japan. Appointees also have their pick of smaller nations, like the Bahamas, desirable for their lifestyles. The salary ranges from $130,000 to $180,000 a year, though the political appointees are expected to pick up the tab for lavish embassy parties and special events. In such places as Paris and London, the job can be expensive. But there's one upside you'll never find in zero-job-security Hollywood: Ambassadors keep their title for life.