Is Barack Obama getting ready to appoint Chicago fundraiser and former Citibank executive Louis B. Susman (he retired February 1 as vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets) to the plumiest of ambassadorships: the U.S Ambassador to Britain (a.k.a. The Court of St. James's)? That's been the speculation in news and gossip columns here and abroad.
Not only does the lucky recipient of the appointment get to mix with the Royals, he doesn't even need to know a foreign language.
Susman, who lives on North Lake Shore Drive, is best known for his role in John Kerry's 2004 race for the presidency. As Kerry's national finance chairman, Susman was so tenacious a fundraiser that he was nicknamed "The Vacuum Cleaner" and "The Hoover" -- in tribute to his talent for sucking wads of cash from people's pockets.
He was almost as impressive in Obama's 2008 race, earning the title, "The Big Bundler."
When I was writing Clinton in Exile: a President Out of the White House, I interviewed Susman in his 87th floor office in what was then still called the Sears Tower. The date was May 30, 2006 and Susman, who raised $247 million for Kerry, was being courted by many Democratic men who wanted to be elected president in 2008 and one woman, Hillary Clinton. "I had calls from every potential candidate," he told me
While I was sitting across his desk, Susman, then 68, took a call from Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, whom Susman described as an old and close friend. Vilsack was one of those plotting his run for the nomination and looking to land Susman on his team. Susman did not commit to Vilsack then or later. (Among the first to drop out of the race for the nomination, Vilsack later threw his support to Hillary.)
Hillary also called and Susman flew to Washington to meet with her in her Senate office. "I'm not running, but . . ." she told him. Susman wasn't interested in helping Hillary. He correctly predicted that Hillary "makes a mistake" by relying on her old hands for her campaign, singling out her campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe for presenting the wrong "image." Susman characterized Hillary as the Republicans' best fundraiser. "I know people in Lake Forest that literally will give $2,000 to the Republican nominee and if it's Hillary they'll go out and raise $20,000." He also predicted, again correctly, that Bill Clinton, because of "his morals" would be a negative for Hillary.
(As a member of Citigroup's advisory board, Susman hosted a meeting in Paris in March 2004 and engaged former president Clinton to speak to a group of "very powerful people" at the Paris Opera House. Clinton, who was paid $250,000, "wowed them," says Susman. "He didn't use a note.")
Susman wrongly predicted to me that day that the victor in 2008 would be a governor, that a senator didn't stand a chance. But by January 2007, taken with the phenomenon named Obama, Susman climbed on the rookie Senator's bandwagon. Obama's name had not even come up during our interview seven months earlier.
If Susman turns out to be Obama's pick for London, how would the Brits respond? In the last few weeks, stories in the Guardian, the Times, and the Telegraph have portrayed Susman, who has no experience in diplomacy, as a crony and as a refutation of Obama's promise to change how things work in Washington.
Obama is already catching flack from the Brits for returning a bust of Winston Churchill that resided in the Oval Office and was lent to George W. Bush, after 9/11, by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Obama was also castigated for giving Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of 25 DVDs of classic American movies; the gift was pronounced to be tacky, especially because, according to the Daily Mail, Brown gave the new president, "an ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet....Oak from the Gannet's sister ship, HMS Resolute, was carved to make a desk that has sat in the Oval Office in the White House since 1880. Mr. Brown also handed over a framed commission for HMS Resolute and a first edition of the seven-volume biography of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert."
Getting back to Lou Susman: Marcell Berlins wrote in the Guardian that Susman is getting the nod "for having raised a prodigious sum for Obama....his reward is a few sumptuous years in London." The choice of Susman, Berlins added, was "being seen in some sensitive quarters as an Obama snub..."
Tom Baldwin wrote in the Times of London that Obama, "Having campaigned on a promise to end the culture of cronyism, seems poised to appoint one of his biggest campaign fundraisers as the next American ambassador in London."
Tim Shipman wrote in the Sunday Telegraph of London, "The selection of Louis Susman, a lawyer and banker...rather than an experienced diplomat, raises new questions about Mr. Obama's commitment to the special relationship with Britain....Downing Street is understood to have hoped for a high profile diplomat to be sent to London at a time when there are fears over Mr. Obama's commitment to the special relationship."
Almost in passing, Shipman speculated on a reason why Obama might owe Susman -- big time, as in had Susman not made a suggestion to Kerry, his friend and neighbor in Nantucket, Obama might not be president. Shipman writes that Susman "talent-spotted" Obama and might have been instrumental in Kerry's decision to bestow upon Obama the keynote speech at the Democratic convention in 2004. That speech made Obama a celebrity, a man who was mobbed when he walked down the street. It propelled his memoir, which hadn't sold particularly well when it was first published in 1995, onto the bestseller lists where it still resides. It gave the Obama family millions of dollars in royalties and millions more in a new advance, and thereby brought Michelle Obama, who worried about her family's finances, on board for the long slog to the White House.
Who is Lou Susman?
He came to Chicago from St. Louis in 1989 to take a job with Salomon Brothers. He had been a partner in a St. Louis law firm -- one of his clients was August Busch, Jr., whose Anheuser-Busch Companies then owned the St. Louis Cardinals -- and Susman became a director of the team.
Susman was not only close to Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, but also to Kerry strategist and speechwriter Bob Shrum, best known as the author of one of Ted Kennedy's most stirring speeches delivered after he lost the 1980 nomination to Jimmy Carter, and for his role in the losing campaigns of Kerry and Al Gore.
On election day 2004, Susman and his wife, Margie, were having lunch in Boston at Locke-Ober's with Shrum, his wife, Oatsie and then Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. "I got a call from a counterpart of mine [at] the Republican Finance Committee, congratulating me," Susman recalled. But he knew that the congratulations were premature as soon as he heard the exit poll numbers from his home state of Missouri. "It didn't sound right to me." As election night wore on, Kerry was holed up at his house on Boston's Louisburg Square. Susman was in the war room deciding whether to contest Ohio. "I had put aside a lot of money to pay for the legal challenge and then I think we all made the right decision not to challenge."
Should Susman get the nod and go to London, will his appointment be different from those made by other presidents in recent history? Hasn't the ambassador to Britain posting been mostly about patronage lately? George W. Bush's last appointment to the post was Robert Tuttle. Tom Baldwin in the Times of London dismisses Tuttle as "a Beverly Hills car-dealer who raised at least $100,000 for George Bush's election campaign." To mention another example of many: In 1969, Richard Nixon sent businessman/philanthropist Walter Annenberg to London. As reported in the New York Times in the recent obituary of his widow, Lee Annenberg, "...the British press was generally unreceptive, calling him a pompous businessman with political connections and no diplomatic skills. But Mrs. Annenberg, almost single-handedly, turned British opinion around, not with lavish parties but with a project that won acclaim. She renovated Winfield House, the 35-room ambassador's residence in London, for under $1 million. The dowdy old Regent's Park manse acquired Chippendale tables with inlaid satinwood, Lowestoft china, Ming chests, and, from the Annenberg collections, three Monets, two Gauguins, five Cézannes, two van Goghs, three Renoirs and a Toulouse-Lautrec."