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Commentary: Appointed ambassadors can be good

by on February 22, 2014 10:20 AM

The practice of presidents rewarding political donors and allies by making them ambassadors is under attack because so many are making fools of themselves in their Senate confirmation hearings.

Commentators are generally in uproar that such oafs should have been picked by the Obama administration to represent the United States. None of them seems to have traveled nor had any curiosity about the lands that await them.

How could former Sen. Max Baucus of Montana have told the Senate that he didn’t know much about China? Is there a more important diplomatic posting for the United States than China? He was confirmed.

The nominee for ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet, admitted that he hadn’t been there. He did so in a way that implied that while he was a globetrotter, the country in which he has been selected to serve is so hugely unimportant that he skipped it.

Argentina is the second-largest country in South America. Somebody get that man a primer on Juan Peron, the Falklands and give him the latest issue of The Economist. It features a cover story on Argentina.

The implication of these humiliating nominations is that political appointment of ambassadors should stop. “No, it shouldn’t,” I cry. What would we have done without these great political ambassadors: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Kenneth Galbraith, Felix Rohatyn and Howard Baker? Even Shirley Temple Black?

Political appointees bring a breadth experience and open-mindedness to the job that those who have climbed the ranks of the State Department don’t have. The problem, as so much else in the Obama administration, is lousy staff work in picking the ambassadors.

Everyone knows that they are primarily prizes for raising campaign contributions for the president. But is the White House so dazzled by the money that it has to nominate any ignoramus who has collected a sack full of it?

The right political appointee can bring a richness, a warmth and an unbridled enthusiasm to diplomatic work. Step forward Theodore Sedgwick, our outgoing ambassador to Slovakia.

Sedgwick, a former specialist publisher in Washington, may be a model for political-appointee ambassadors. Sedgwick breezed through Harvard and parlayed one small newsletter on coal into an enviable publishing company.

I’ve known a bunch of political-appointee ambassadors in such far-flung places as Argentina, Ireland,, Morocco and Russia, but Sedgwick is an envoy extraordinaire. He is a history scholar and an intensely curious person. Neophyte U.S. ambassadors take note: Curiosity about a people and an interest in their history will launch an ambassador toward success,

Sedgwick’s day is that of an executive dealing with the business of government. He promotes U.S. exports, turns away wrath over Wikileaks and the NSA and stresses the ties between the United States and European countries. And at present, no U.S. ambassador in Europe is not alert and working to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.

But after hours, you may well find Obama’s ambassador plenipotentiary to Slovakia playing keyboard as a member of a rock band, Diplomatic Immunity, formerly called Philanthropy Band. The band’s distinguished members include the Romanian ambassador to Slovakia on guitar; the Israeli ambassador on the little drums; the head of the Institute for Public Affairs, the most prominent nongovernmental organization in Slovakia, on guitar; an Israeli diplomat on lead guitar; and an Israeli IBM employee on bass guitar. The band’s primary drummer is Peter Gogola, the mayor of Banska Bystrica, a major Slovak city and Milan Ftacnik, the mayor of the capital city of Bratislava, sings with the band.

The band is a sensation in Slovakia. It has released DVDs and is on YouTube.

The State Department doesn’t require that ambassadors should be like Sedgwick, a gifted musician, but it helps. When I visited Bratislava, I found Sedgwick, my old rival in journalism and publishing, is beloved and the most successful U.S. ambassador to Slovakia since it became an independent country in 1993.

Play on, Mr. Ambassador, even if the White House sometimes has a tin ear about political appointees.

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of "White House Chronicles" on PBS. His column is written for Hearst Newspapers.
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