Obama Favoring Donors In Ambassador Appointments? No More Than Previous Presidents

The Obama Administration took some fire yesterday for recent Ambassadorial Appointments, but the President's record has been consistent with those of his recent predecessors.

U.S. Embassy Seal

As it moved forward on backlogged nominations yesterday, the Senate approved the nomination of Colleen Bell to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, and that didn’t make John McCain happy at all:

The Senate confirmed a producer of the soap opera “The Bold and The Beautiful” today to serve as ambassador to Hungary, and Sen. John McCain is not happy about it.

Prior to the vote, McCain, R-Ariz., went on a tirade about how Colleen Bradley Bell, a soap opera producer and bundler for President Obama’s campaigns, is “unqualified” to represent the United States as an ambassador to Hungary.

“We’re about to vote on a totally unqualified individual to be ambassador to a nation which is very important to our national security interest,” McCain said on the Senate floor. “Her qualifications are as a producer of the television soap opera ‘The Bold and The Beautiful,’ contributed 800,000 [dollars] to Obama in the last election and bundled more than $2.1 million for President Obama’s re-election effort.”

“I am not against political appointees … I understand how the game is played, but here we are, a nation [Hungary] that is on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin and we’re going to send the producer of ‘The Bold and The Beautiful’ as the ambassador,” McCain continued. “I urge my colleagues to put a stop to this foolishness. I urge a no vote.”

Regardless of McCain’s urging, the Senate confirmed Bell to the ambassador post with a vote of 52-42.

McCain’s displeasure with Bell’s qualifications stems from a contentious confirmation hearing earlier this year when multiple ambassador nominees bungled questions from senators. In her questioning with McCain, Bell struggled to name the U.S. strategic interests in Hungary. Here’s an excerpt from the hearing:

MCCAIN: So what would you be doing differently from your predecessor, who obviously had very rocky relations with the present government?

BELL: If confirmed, I look forward to working with the broad range of society —

MCCAIN: My question was, what would you do differently?

BELL: Senator, in terms of what I would do differently from my predecessor, Kounalakis —

MCCAIN: That’s the question.

BELL: Well, what I would like to do when — if confirmed — I would like to work towards engaging civil society in a deeper — in a deeper —

MCCAIN: Obviously, you don’t want to answer my question.

If anything good can be said about Bell’s response here, it is that at least she didn’t struggle with having to respond about the last time she had actually visited the nation that she would be serving as the diplomatic face of the United States like the proposed Ambassador to Argentina did earlier this year:

The White House, meanwhile, seemed to struggle to explain just how Bell is qualified to serve in the position she has not been confirmed to:

It’s not every day that White House has to defend its decision to nominate a soap opera producer to represent the country on one of the highest diplomatic levels.

But it was that kind of Tuesday.

Asked at the daily press briefing what makes “The Bold and The Beautiful” producer Colleen Bell qualified to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, White House spokesman Josh Earnest didn’t exactly have an explanation.

“(She’s) somebody who obviously has succeeded in, you know, in the business world,” Earnest said.

“And she is somebody that the President has confidence will be able to maintain our relationship with the government and the people of Hungary.”

Earnest also denied that Bell’s hand in raising millions of dollars for the President’s re-election campaign had anything to do with her appointment.

“Well, I can tell you that that’s not the reason she was chosen,” he said.

Earnest said the reason Bell was nominated for the post was because the President “has complete confidence in her ability to represent the United States in that country.”

Here’s video of that portion of the White House press briefing:

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The truth, of course, is that Bell’s appointment is just another example of a very old game in Washington in which campaign donors and friends of the President end up getting rewarded with largely symbolic positions on government commissions or appointments to Ambassadorial positions, usually in countries that are now among the more important when it comes to world affairs. Not surprisingly, these end up being nations where the duties of the Ambassador end up being largely ceremonial and U.S. relations with the country in question are sufficiently solid that sending what amounts to a symbolic appointment to be the nation’s chief diplomatic representative would not be seen as an insult. A quick Google search this morning, for example, yielded some interesting results from the American Foreign Service Association, which has cataloged every Ambassadorial appointment from Presidents Gerald Ford through President Obama (to date, obviously) and grouped those appointments into “career” appointments, meaning that the appointee came from within the career foreign service and “political” which they means they came from outside, and found this:

  • President Ford made 97 appointments during his brief time in office, 60 (61.9%) of which were career appointments and 37 (38.2%) of which were political;
  • President Carter made 202 appointments during his four years in office, 148 (73.27%) of them career appointments, and 54 (26.73%) of them political;
  • President Reagan made 420 appointments over eight years, 261 (62%) of them career appointments, and 159 (38%) political appointments;
  • President George H.W. Bush made 214 appointments in four years, 147 (68.69%) of them career appointments, and 67 (31.30%) political appointments;
  • President Clinton made 417 appointments over eight years, 300 (71.94%) of them career appointments, and 117 (28.06%) political appointments;
  • President George W. Bush made 453 appointments in his eight years in office, 318 (70.2%) of them career appointments, and 135 (28.9%) political appointments; and finally,
  • President Obama has, to date, made 378 appointments since 2009, 245 (64.8%) of them career appointments, and 133 (35.2%) political appointments

On average, these numbers show that Presidential Ambassadorial appointments have come from the career Foreign Service roughly 67.54% of the time and from “political” appointments roughly 32.54% of the time. Among Presidents who have served a full eight years in office, the average has been 68.05% career appointees and 31.95% “political” appointees. Not all of these political appointees have been donors or buddies of the President, of course, but many of them have. The U.S. Ambassador to Mexico during much of the Reagan Administration, for example, was John Gavin, a former Hollywood actor who was close to Reagan personally. The U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas during a good portion of the Clinton Administration was Sidney Williams, a former professional football player who also happens to be the husband of Congresswoman Maxine Waters. The Ambassador to Belize during George W. Bush’s second term was Robert Dieter, the President’s former roommate at Yale. So, yes, Bell’s appointment to the Ambassadorship in Hungary is political, but that’s not unusual given recent history and President Obama’s “political” v. career appointment ratio isn’t all that different from the recent historical norm.

On some level, I suppose, one can lament the fact that any of these Ambassadorships are being handed out for political reasons, but this is, for better or worse how things have always been done and it doesn’t really seem to have had any impact on how foreign policy is conducted. One reason this is the case is that, by and large, a look at the lists I’ve linked above shows that the appointments to nations that would have been considered important at the given time were almost exclusively from among the career Foreign Service. This makes sense because, to the extent the pool of such candidates is limited, you’d want to use them on the nations where a direct relationship between the Ambassador and the people in charge is important, or where it calls for someone who can navigate diplomatic minefield. In other parts of the world, where the Ambassador is as much a goodwill face of the nation and someone who exists to promote good relations and trade, much of those duties can be carried out at the sub-Ambassadorial level, where the positions are indeed filled with people with Foreign Service experience. Additionally, now that we live in a world of near instant communications where the President, White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of State, or any other official can be put in contact with their counterpart anywhere in the world with relative ease, the role of the Ambassador has changed significantly from the what it was in the days of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, or even from what it was in more recent decades. When officials in Washington can largely get in contact with whomever they need to whenever they want, the role of the person representing the nation in the capital city of another nation is naturally going to become far less diplomatic in the formal sense, and far more akin to the role of a cultural, trade, and tourism Ambassador. This, along with the the tremendous goodwill that the Japanese people still have for John F. Kennedy, for example, is a good reason why Caroline Kennedy’s appointment as Ambassador to Japan a few years back was not very surprising. Japan remains an important ally, of course, but the role of the Ambassador has changed given modern technology and all of the other ties between Washington and Tokyo. That’s not to say that technology has made Ambassadors superfluous, of course, but tings have changed enough that we may start to see more “political” appointments in the future than we have in the past. After all, if Ambassador is basically just becoming a symbolic position, then its far less important to have experienced diplomats fill those roles.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Rafer Janders says:

    I’m not really sure that John McCain, the man who thought that Sarah Palin would make a great Vice-President of the United States, is really the man who ought to criticize anyone’s qualifications or lack thereof…..

  2. C. Clavin says:

    Friggin’ socialist Muslim incompetent tyrannical dictator single-handedly destroying the nation.

  3. Davebo says:
  4. al-Ameda says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    I’m not really sure that John McCain, the man who thought that Sarah Palin would make a great Vice-President of the United States, is really the man who ought to criticize anyone’s qualifications or lack thereof…..

    Perfect …
    wouldn’t change a single word.

  5. gVOR08 says:

    But, but, but, Doug, it’s different when Obama does it because he’s bl… well you know it just is.

  6. C. Clavin says:

    @Rafer Janders:
    Senator Bomb Iran is also in the process of giving some pristine Arizona land to the Iranians for copper mining. I think his judgment has never improved from when he was crashing our jets for fun.

  7. Gustopher says:

    It’s just the kind of thug life that Obama leads. Making political appointments, flashing gang signs, those terrorist fist jabs, palling around with terrorists, his racist preacher, disappearing the whitey tape… He just doesn’t respect the office. And his kids aren’t classy.

    Compare Obama to our first president. As the kids today say, George Washington totally owned people like Obama (also, he literally owned people like Obama).

  8. Davebo says:

    @C. Clavin:

    You don’t get to be a Black Ace without applying yourself.

    Sometimes I think the country would be better off if he’d been a slightly more competent pilot. Instead of crashing into the Gulf of Mexico off Corpus Christi missing the carrier entirely he could have just hit the round down.

    Over the top? Probably.

  9. Scott says:

    I don’t have a problem with political appointee per se but at least they should prepare themselves for hearings and know the issues concerning that country. Ambassadors rely on career staffers and there are briefing books galore. Someone who is too lazy to prep should be shot down.

    I would be more interested if there were some comparative evaluation of the success rate of career vs political appointees. I bet there are some very successful political appointees (Shirley Temple Black comes to mind) who took their job seriously and competently.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    I do have a problem with political appointees to ambassadorships. I think it’s appalling. It trivializes foreign policy, it’s a slap at the professionals who’ve spent years studying FP in general, and hopefully the country in question. And, it insults the host country. It says to Hungary that this is how much we care: we sent a TV producer who couldn’t find Hungary on a map of Hungary.

    Yes, everyone does it, but no that doesn’t make it less of a bad idea.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    @michael reynolds:

    it’s a slap at the professionals who’ve spent years studying FP in general


  12. CSK says:

    @michael reynolds:

    True. But look at it this way. The ambassador is just the front. The real work is done by the old, experienced pros. Certainly I’d rather have as front woman or font man an intelligent, educated, worldly expert in the history, literature, and culture of Country X. But it ain’t gonna happen soon, if ever. So I’ll settle for knowing that the career diplomats who perform the heavy lifting actually have some handle on what they’re doing.

  13. Franklin says:

    Excuse my ignorance, and I guess you guys are sort of debating this already, but how important is an ambassador? I feel like the consultants in Office Space … “What would you say you *do* here?” Are they just glorified messengers?

  14. John425 says:

    Well, unqualified ambassadors are just the icing on the cake of absurdity when Obama appointed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. What kind of message did that send to the world?

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @John425: Objection. Argument from facts not in evidence.

  16. C. Clavin says:


    @John425: Objection. Argument from facts not in evidence.

    Doesn’t that go without saying?

  17. JohnMcC says:

    Wow! I’m just knocked out that Sen McCain recognizes the Jobbik is actually fascist! Good going, John! And about that actor from “Bedtime for Bonzo….”

  18. PJ says:

    MCCAIN: So what would you be doing differently from your predecessor, who obviously had very rocky relations with the present government?

    Not sure what kind of ambassador McCain wants, but if mending the current relations is on his priority list, then calling the current prime minister of Hungary a fascist and dictator isn’t helping with that…

    Not that I don’t agree with him, Orban is a fascist, and if not a dictator, he sure would want to be one. But the appointment of Colleen Bell is getting a lot less attention worldwide than what McCain called Orban.


    Jobbik isn’t the ruling party of Hungary, that’s Fidesz. Jobbik is Fidesz on steroids.

  19. KM says:

    Wait, you mean money greases hands to get someone something they haven’t earned and don’t really deserve? Why, perish the thought! How utterly shocking someone in politics is there because of their wealth and connections instead of their competency and genuine urge to complete their civic duty! Goodness, the very notion is enough to give one the vapors!

  20. grumpy realist says:

    @Franklin: My own experience with Japan, given how the system is set up there, is that all the real work is done on both sides by the civil service and the foreign service types, with the politicians/ambassadors there to give platitudes on TV and get their pictures snapped a lot by the press. If you want to actually influence legislation, you get yourself on an NGO and help write the White Paper the government puts out as official policy. If you’re a foreigner, you figure out who might possibly support your side, and write your own policy paper/give a talk/start the ball rolling. I ended up nudging quite a lot of stuff into existence when I was there, mainly because I was a clueless gaijin and could stick my neck out.

  21. Slugger says:

    The best (worst) political ambassador appointment of all time was the appointment of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. to the Court of St. James. An Irish guy with bootlegging and Hollywood connections to the Brits. A guy who disregarded Churchill’s advice re trying to deal with Hitler. The reaction of conservatives in London and the US must have been been volcanic. FDR had to be effing with the whole world!

  22. John425 says:

    @gVOR08: @C. Clavin: Lemme see: Israel left to hang out and dry, Russian Reset?, Britain cold-shouldered, China cold-shouldering us in the Pacific, rise of the leftist governments in Latin America, immovable Iran, Libya, etc. Her foreign policy expertise was previously limited to sipping tea with other First Ladies.

    Facts not in evidence? Read the newspapers or watch TV news instead of just contemplating your navels, guys.

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    Well, I would have answered his question by saying that a good place to start would be to not be the sort of officious prig who asks vague questions for which whatever answer is given can be easily faulted becaus he’s still angry about not being able to give political favors to his cronies.

    On the other hand, I may lack the tact necessary to be successful in even a mostly ceremonial ambassadorship.

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Israel left to hang out and dry

    Yes of course because unless the collective ass of Israel is not being kissed, that country is being “left to hang out and dry”…

    Russian Reset

    Umm, perhaps that has more to do with Putin…

    Britain cold-shouldered

    How’s that?

    China cold-shouldering us in the Pacific

    As if that has anything to do with who the particular Secretary of State is…

    rise of the leftist governments in Latin America

    Perhaps we should stage a coup or two? After all it worked so well in Chile…

    Her foreign policy expertise was previously limited to sipping tea with other First Ladies.

    That’s ok, in a few years she’ll be sipping tea with heads of state…

  25. Franklin says:

    @grumpy realist: Thank you for the insider’s reply! And for not downvoting my question like some a-hole did …

  26. mannning says:


    I heartedly agree with your sentiment. I do think it should change, however, and soon. Meanwhile we go with ceremonial representation plus backroom expertise.

  27. John425 says:

    @An Interested Party: No doubt you’ll be rooting for Hamas as they try for another “final solution”. Blame it on Putin? Typical Obama loon’s ploy. It’s the other guys fault. Saying “Wha” is the liberal’s favorite excuse for doing nothing or hiding failure.

    Hillary’s “electability” is nil, nada, zip, zero, non-existent and kaput.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    No doubt you’ll be rooting for Hamas as they try for another “final solution”.

    Yet again, if one isn’t for letting the government of Israel (particularly Likud) do whatever it wants, one supposedly supports terrorism…

    Typical Obama loon’s ploy.

    Actually lunacy is blaming the President or anyone else in his administration because Putin wants to act like an impotent beach boy…

    Hillary’s “electability” is nil, nada, zip, zero, non-existent and kaput.

    Such was said about others before they actually became president…humph, and to think that some people were pissed when Obama won…they’ll be extremely apoplectic when Hillary does the same…