December 26, 2012


Rumors are swirling that Illinois' senior senator, Dick Durbin, is eagerly seeking an ambassadorship as the capstone of his career. Durbin needs to get it now, while Barack Obama is president, so he can enjoy himself for 4 years, and that means another Illinois U.S. Senate vacancy.

Hopefully Governor Pat Quinn won't try to sell it, as did his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, in 2009.

If there is a "frat house" in U.S. politics, and it's the diplomatic corps, or foreign service -- the career-service staffers assigned by the State Department to the 201 countries throughout the world in which America has an embassy. Each embassy has an ambassador. Each ambassador is paid $130,000 to $160,000 annually. Each embassy has a yearly budget of $10 million to $50 million, depending on the level of security and the volume of entertainment. There also are ambassadors to the United Nations, to 20 international organizations such as NATO, and five ambassadors at large, who undertake "special diplomacy" at the president's behest.

In Muslim countries and in Israel, a U.S. ambassador's life expectancy is measured on a day-to-day basis. It's hazardous duty, as demonstrated by the killing of Libya Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, and the embassies are staffed by marines, but elsewhere ambassadorial life is a never-ending party. The motto is: eat, drink, be merry, pick up some gossip, and let the CIA operatives who are on staff scoop up some intelligence.

An ambassador's job is not onerous, and it involves no heavy lifting. It's a wearisome, do-nothing, after-hours job, and ambassadors must excel at schmoozing, with a permanent smile plastered on their face. It entails attending an endless succession of galas, speeches, receptions, installations and cocktail parties celebrating postings, inaugurations, retirements and other mundane matters. There are two critical criteria: don't get drunk and make a fool of yourself, and don't say anything stupid and embarrass your country. It's the kind of job many skilled politicians covet.

According to Democratic sources in Illinois, 16-year incumbent Durbin, age 68, now covets it. The reasons are both political and chronological. Durbin is the Senate majority whip, and Harry Reid of Nevada will be the Democratic Senate leader until at least 2016. If Durbin runs for re-election in 2014, he is not guaranteed Reid's job in 2016, when he will be age 72. Chuck Schumer of New York also wants it. So why not bail now, be an ambassador, and enjoy oneself?

There are several kinds of ambassadors:

*Career service: These are Ivy League graduates with language skills, who snare entry-level analytical positions, or staff linguists who handle visa, immigration and tourist matters. Some eventually rise to the level of charge d'affaires, which mean they run the embassy day-to-day. Ambassadors are just figureheads, and they last only as long as the president who appointed them. Every ambassador must submit a resignation when a new president takes office. In smaller countries, career-service minions usually rise to be an ambassador and serve for lengthy periods.

*Career ending: These are loyal politicians who are put out to pasture, either through retirement or defeat. They aren't over age 70, they lack the skills or motivation to be a lobbyist, and their ego demands some pomp and circumstance. A classic example was former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, who was defeated in 1998 and who was then promptly dispatched as America's ambassador to New Zealand, a place where she couldn't make much mischief.

Others were former vice president Walter Mondale (1993 to 1996) and defeated U.S. House speaker Tom Foley (1997 to 2001), who both got the more sensitive Japan posting, and defeated Tennessee senator Jim Sasser (1996-99), who got China. Tokyo seems to attract former U.S. Senate majority leaders: Democrat Mike Mansfield served from 1977 to 1988, and Republican Howard Baker served from 2001 to 2005.

Undoubtedly the most famous career ender was none other than retired General Douglas MacArthur, a hero of World War II, the commander of the South West Pacific Area during the war, and the post-war regent of Japan. He was fired by President Truman during the Korean War, but he was appointed ambassador to Japan by President Dwight Eisenhower, serving from 1956 to 1961.

There's also the "dumping ground" scenario: When President Abraham Lincoln wanted to get rid of the inept Secretary of War Simon Cameron and replace him with Edwin Stanton in 1862, he dispatched the Pennsylvania political boss to Russia as the U.S. ambassador. In 1932, after Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon botched the Great Depression's recovery, President Herbert Hoover booted him to London.

*Career enhancing: Unquestionably the most prestigious ambassadorship is to the United Nations, where reams of publicity and proximity to the nation's power centers keep the "between jobs" politician viable. Two examples pop to mind:

Republican George H.W. Bush, whose father was a Connecticut senator, transplanted himself to West Texas and became an oilman. Bush lost a U.S. Senate race in 1964, he won a House seat in 1966 and 1968, and he lost again for the Senate in 1970. At age 46 Bush was deemed too politically valuable to be discarded, so President Richard Nixon named him the U.N. ambassador in 1971 and then sent him as America's first "liaison" to the People's Republic of China in 1973, and in 1976 President Gerald Ford named him the director of the CIA. In 6 years Bush was rehabilitated, his foreign policy credentials were burnished, and he was ready to run for president (and be elected vice-president) in 1980.

The other is Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, whose neglect of his state enabled young John F. Kennedy to oust him as U.S. senator in 1952. Lodge ran Eisenhower's presidential campaign and ignored his own. His payoff was the United Nations post in 1953, where his verbal tussles with the Soviets made him a household name and got him the 1960 vice presidential nomination. After Kennedy won the presidency in 1960, the deft and opportunistic Lodge was appointed ambassador to South Vietnam, where it was convenient for the Democrats to have a Republican take some heat in a world hot spot. In 1969, after his "stellar" tenure in Saigon, Nixon posted Lodge to Germany.

Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a onetime Nixon advisor, used the U.N. as a springboard to win a New York Senate seat in 1976. Madeleine Albright, who was at the U.N. from 1993 to 1996, became Bill Clinton's secretary of state in 1997. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was Ronald Reagan's U.N. envoy from 1981 to 1985, never got the big promotion. John Bolton, George W. Bush's U.N. pick, would have been Mitt Romney's secretary of state.

The obverse is Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats' 1952 and 1956 presidential candidate, who at age 60 expected to be the Kennedy Administration's secretary of state in 1961. Instead, the obscure Dean Rusk got the plum post and Stevenson was "demoted" to the U.N., where he served from 1961 to 1965.

The top diplomatic postings are Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, China and India, with the Vatican, Ireland, Spain and France as the next most desirable among the "Big Ten" posts.

Averell Harriman, the consummate Washington insider, used postings in London and Moscow as a springboard to the New York governorship in 1954, but he lost the job to Republican Nelson Rockefeller in 1958, demonstrating that competent diplomats are not necessarily good politicians. The ubiquitous Don Rumsfeld moved smoothly from Ford White House chief of staff to NATO ambassador and then to George W. Bush defense secretary.

*Political payoffs. Chicagoan Louis Susman, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, is typical. Susman is renowned as the "Vacuum Cleaner" and the "Big Bundler" due to decades of fund-raising for the Democrats. A Massachusetts native, a corporate lawyer, then an investment banker for Salomon Brothers, he came to Chicago in 1989. He was a fund-raiser for Ted Kennedy in 1980, and he was John Kerry's national finance director in 2004. Ambassadorships routinely go to presidential friends and party fund-raisers with no diplomatic experience. Susman's appointment by Barack Obama maintained that grand tradition of political patronage.

Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, got the U.K. posting after raising oodles of money for Franklin Roosevelt, and Republican fund-raisers Walter Annenberg and Anne Armstrong got appointments in the 1970s.

For Irish-American Democrats, Dublin is the coveted posting, and rumors abound that Bill Clinton wants that job. The current ambassador is Dan Rooney.

Germany's envoy is Philip Murphy, a former Democratic finance chairman who was active in Obama's 2008 campaign. A predecessor was Dan Coats, the current (and former) Republican senator from Indiana, who was between jobs from 1998 to 2010. Another predecessor was economist Arthur Burns, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, whom Reagan eased out in 1981 by sending him to Bonn.

The current ambassadors to Russia (Michael McFaul), the Vatican (Miguel Diaz), France (Charles Rivkin), India (Nancy Powell) and Japan (John Roos) are expendable non-politicians. If Durbin wants one of their postings, he gets it.

*Political cover: Historically, an ambassadorship was career enhancing and issue avoiding. Prior to their presidencies, Thomas Jefferson went to France, John Adams went to England and the Netherlands, John Quincy Adams went to England, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands, James Monroe went to France and England, Martin Van Buren went to England, and James Buchanan went to England and Russia. Being out of the country helped Buchanan win in 1856, as he avoided commenting on slavery issues.

If Durbin becomes a diplomat, he won't be in the line of fire. He'll get one of the "Big Ten" postings -- probably Japan.