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Presidents going back to George Washington have appointed their political supporters to diplomatic posts, but President Barack Obama’s latest round of ambassadorial nominees — particularly those with Hollywood ties — has been the target of intense scrutiny and scathing criticism.
Conservative commentators, in fact, have made something of a cause célèbre out of two nominees with entertainment industry roots, TV producer Colleen Bell — nominated as U.S. ambassador to Hungary — and Hollywood political strategist and fundraiser Noah Mamet, up to be America’s top representative in Argentina.
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Bell’s and Mamet’s Hollywood backgrounds have made them the easiest rhetorical piñatas in what Obama’s Republican critics would like to turn into a wider discussion of the unusually large number of patronage appointees he has sent to Capitol Hill in his second term. Historically, America had no professional diplomatic service until 1924 and in the years since, most presidents have tried to limit the percentage of ambassadorships handed out to supporters to about one-third. During his first term, in fact, only about 10 percent of Obama’s diplomatic nominees were patronage choices. In this term, 53 percent of the names submitted for confirmation are those of fundraisers or former staff members without diplomatic experience. Many of the nominees are still waiting confirmation by the Senate.
Columnists and commentators have made a great deal out of Bell’s credits as producer of The Bold and the Beautiful television soap opera and of the fact that Mamet never has been to Argentina and speaks only rudimentary Spanish. Both were leading fundraisers for Obama’s re-election campaign: Bell collected or contributed more than $800,000 and Mamet bundled more than $500,000 in contributions.
During their recent confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. John McCain questioned Bell, and Sen. Marco Rubio grilled Mamet.
Bell (pictured at right with her husband, Bradley Bell, at the Daytime Emmy Awards in June 2013) was described in the Washington Post as having “stammered her way through testimony about U.S. strategic interests in [Hungary], which is the focus of growing international alarm over far-right lawmakers’ attitudes toward Jews and other minorities.” Meanwhile a popular Hungarian politics blog, Hungarian Spectrum, took a shot at Bell’s choice of clothing for the hearing: “Normally she is quite a fashion plate, but for the occasion she dressed more like a nun, all in black with a small white collar. Obviously, she wanted to be very professional looking.”
When Rubio asked Mamet whether he’d ever been to Argentina, a country once again in the grip of complex economic woes, he replied, “Senator, I haven’t had the opportunity yet to be there. I’ve traveled pretty extensively around the world. But I haven’t yet had a chance.”
The U.K.’s Daily Mail ran with the headline: “Obama nominee for ambassador to Argentina says he’s NEVER been to the country.”
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Show business roots make for easy rhetorical point-scoring, but several of the president’s other, non-Hollywood nominees fared worse in front of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Major Obama contributor and Chartwell Hotels CEO George Tsunis, nominated to be America’s top diplomat in Norway, testified that he’d never been to the country, either. He did manage, however, to cause a diplomatic tiff that still has Oslo fuming, when he referred to Progress Party — an important part of the country’s centrist governing coalition — as part of a discounted right-wing “fringe.” Similarly, Robert C. Barber, who collected more than $1.6 million in contributions for Obama’s re-election, testified that he’s never been to Iceland, where he hopes to serve as ambassador.
McCain concluded the nominees’ confirmation hearing with a sarcastic “I have no more questions for this incredibly highly qualified group of nominees,” and in a subsequent interview told the Post, he found several of the nominees’ lack of obvious qualifications “truly alarming. … When you put someone in an ambassador’s position who hasn’t even been to the country, you are rolling the dice.”
No word on if and when Bell and Mamet will advance to a full vote of the Senate. Several Obama fundraisers with Hollywood ties are already serving ambassadorships. They include HBO’s James Costos in Spain; financial adviser John Emerson in Germany; and former entertainment executive and Obama national finance chair Rufus Gifford, in Denmark.
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