WASHINGTON -- The U.S. ambassadorship to the U.K. is the plumiest of jobs, reserved in modern times for a key political or financial backer of the president, rather than a professional diplomat, on the theory that others (in the embassy, at the State Department, in the CIA or wherever) do the heavy lifting, while the ambassador woos investors, chats up the London chattering class or hobnobs with the royals.
But on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry swore in a new U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James' who will wield unusual inside clout. He is Matthew Barzun, who, at the tender age (for a diplomat) of 42, has the experience, pedigree and contacts to be a major player in London and in Washington.
Barzun, who lives in Louisville, Ky., begins with the usual bundler’s credentials. He was one of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s first major donors and fundraisers in 2007, helped run his national fundraising in 2008, and was in charge of the entire effort in 2012.
Barzun’s own rise has been as swift as Obama’s. He was named ambassador to Sweden at the age of 38 in 2009, only to be called back three years later to head up the Obama reelection fundraising, which set records. London is his reward.
But all that is just the beginning of the story.
Being from Kentucky is an extra chapter. Notwithstanding Barzun’s key role backing the Democrat Obama, he was whisked through Senate confirmation with the quiet but strong backing of Kentucky’s senior senator, Republican Mitch McConnell. In a poisonously divided city and time, Barzun’s nomination was a rare point of agreement between the president and the Senate minority leader.
“The senator couldn’t have been more gracious or more helpful,” Barzun told me Thursday. “He was very cordial.”
Barzun’s pedigree is also unusual: full of brains, breeding and connections made for the job. His paternal grandfather was revered historian Jacques Barzun; his mother is a descendant of John Winthrop, an early 17th century governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
That makes Barzun a distant relative to Kerry, who took note of the “cousinship deal.” Perhaps more to the point, Barzun was a college intern for then-Sen. Kerry in 1989. Years later, he entered politics as a regional fundraiser for Kerry’s 2003-04 presidential campaign.
After Harvard, Barzun went West and became an early player in Silicon Valley, making his fortune as one of the first employees at and, ultimately, head of strategic planning for CNET, the tech publishing giant.
His story would have been rather routine -- for a rich, young, Harvard-to-Silicon Valley guy -- had he not married Brooke Brown, of the Louisville family that controls Brown-Forman, the whiskey distilling company. Barzun thus joined a clan with deep local roots and a long history as players in Kentucky politics and philanthropy.
Team Barzun quickly set about using their clout. They were among the first and most important backers of Louisville businessman John Yarmuth, now the Democrat who represents the city in the U.S. House of Representatives. They were actively trying to recruit a Democrat to take on McConnell in 2014 -- specifically, but not exclusively, actress Ashley Judd.
A quick study and outside-the-box thinker who keeps current on tech developments, Barzun has a giant contact list that combines key young political and business leaders. He is knowledgeable about, and may now be in a position to influence, issues such as the balance between surveillance and privacy in free societies like the U.K. and the U.S. (Barzun remarked that the president has not been given enough credit for his efforts to strike that balance.)
At his confirmation hearing, he said he hopes that Britain will not cut military spending levels. Barzun also noted that the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. needs constant maintenance.
“It’s important that we don’t get complacent or nostalgic,” he said. “This isn’t some 'Downton Abbey' episode.”
Before he left for his first ambassadorial post, Barzun said, he had asked Obama for advice on how to handle the job.
“He gave me a one-word answer,” Barzun said. “Listen. And that is what I will do.”
But the president can also be expected to listen to Barzun.