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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted: May 24, 2009 06:10 PM

When President Obama named Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., a Republican, as ambassador to China last week, the appointment was greeted with cheers. Another Republican would bolster Obama's promise of bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans praised Huntsman's obvious qualifications--from fluency in Mandarin to being the father of a girl adopted from China to having actually lived in China and served as ambassador to Singapore. Some saw the hand of Rahm Emanuel for in a pick as smart as Hillary for Secretary of State, Obama was bringing his potential 2012 rivals inside the tent. (Huntsman regularly appeared on the wish list of Republican presidential nominees; perhaps he was the Republicans' ticket back to the White House.)

Last March I posted here that Obama's probable pick for the most prestigious of ambassadorships--the Court of St. Jame's- was going to Chicagoan and retired investment banker Louis B. Susman. Susman, 71, is so talented at raising money for Democrats--he was John Kerry's national finance chairman and an early money man for Obama--that he was nicknamed "the Vacuum Cleaner" or "the Hoover" during the Kerry campaign, and "the Big Bundler" during the Obama campaign.

The Washington Post had tipped the choice of Susman in February; Mike Sneed, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, had tipped it in March.

Having interviewed Susman in his Chicago office in 2006 when he was vice chairman of Citigroup Global Markets--he retired last February--I weighed in here with my observations on the man.

I described the outrage among British journalists and pundits who felt that Susman wasn't worthy of the job--and that his choice was another in a series of Obama insults to the Brits (removing a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office, etc.).

When the Guardian of London and then CNN reported on May 21 that diplomatic documents had been submitted to and approved by Buckingham Palace and an announcement of Susman's appointment was imminent, I decided to take another look at how the news was greeted in England.

The British press remains outraged:

The Daily Telegraph headlined its brief report, "Ultimate prize for `Vacuum Cleaner'"

This is how The Guardian lead its report on the Susman selection:

A little bit of Chicago's ruthless and combative political machine is soon to descend on the decorous calm of the Court of St James. Despite promising to end cronyism in Washington, Barack Obama is about to appoint one of his home town friends and financial backers to the plum London posting. The next ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary will be Louis Susman, a lawyer and financier with little experience of foreign affairs." The paper noted that Obama seemed to be breaking his promise "to offer more of the top jobs to demoralized career diplomats.

The Guardian did concede that for three years Susman served on the state department's advisory commission on public diplomacy and that he is active in the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Susman is a respected figure in Chicago--he was born and bred in St. Louis and arrived in Chicago in 1989--and his critics do not doubt his intelligence and energy, but some complain that he is a name dropper--he dropped many during my interview with him-- and social climber.

His days of dropping names and/or social climbing are likely over. Others will want to court him as he dines at Downing Street and Buckingham Palace, as he entertains at his new home, Winfield House, with 35 rooms on twelve acres in Regent's Park.

Some of those critics will undoubtedly be dropping his name because, assuming he wins Senate approval, he appears to have climbed almost as high as anyone could hope to go.

One thing has to be said for Lou Susman that cannot be said for all money men turned ambassadors: at least he speaks the language.