Now it's payback time for the big league of Obama fundraisers


AMERICA:Obama has been respectful of some American traditions, like the importance of raising large sums of money, writes DENIS STAUNTON

WHILE BARACK Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court caught the headlines this week, a small, distinguished and deeply dejected group in Washington DC had their eyes on a different set of nominations.

Last Wednesday night, Obama named ambassadors to some of the most eagerly sought postings in the world, including London, Paris, Tokyo and the Holy See. Like all White House appointments, this week’s delighted a handful of the president’s friends and disappointed many more.

Despite his promise of change, Obama is respectful of some American political traditions, including the importance of raising huge sums of money.

Obama’s use of the internet to raise funds during the campaign drew much attention, but he was equally successful in raising money the old-fashioned way – through small groups of wealthy people.

Campaign finance laws limit individual donations to $2,300 but serious “bundlers” – usually very wealthy supporters – collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in individual donations from friends.

This week, some of Obama’s biggest fundraisers received their reward.

Chicago-based investment banker Louis Susman (71), whose fundraising prowess won him the nicknames of “the Hoover” and “the vacuum cleaner” has been named as the next US ambassador to the Court of St James. He succeeds Robert Tuttle, a California car dealer who raised large sums for George W Bush.

Caroline Kennedy was among those whose names were mentioned in the media for the London post and some in Britain hoped their relationship with Washington was still special enough to attract a real heavy-hitter such as Oprah Winfrey.

A number of rich Democratic ladies in Washington have been studying French for the past few months in the hope that they or their husbands would be appointed ambassador to Paris. They can put their grammar books away now because the president has chosen Charles Rivkin, a former producer of The Muppet Show, who raised half a million dollars for the campaign in California.

Staff at the Paris embassy will be encouraged to learn that since 1968 their new ambassador’s family has sponsored the Rivkin Award, which honours constructive dissent in the American foreign service.

London, Paris and Dublin (where Obama is sending Pittsburgh Steelers boss Dan Rooney) have long been reserved for fundraisers and other influential supporters. The embassy in Tokyo, however, has traditionally been the preserve of major political heavyweights – with past ambassadors including former vice president Walter Mondale, former Senate majority leaders Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker and former House speaker Tom Foley.

Obama’s choice for that job is Silicon Valley lawyer John Roos, who has helped to raise money for startup companies and has represented major technology companies. He has also helped to raise money for Obama.

Roos’s appointment stands in sharp contrast to the president’s choice of Utah governor Jon Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker, as ambassador to China. The new ambassador to Delhi is also a serious political figure – former Indiana congressman Tim Roemer, who was a member of the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks.

Among the president’s most interesting nominations this week was that of Miguel Diaz (45), a professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, as ambassador to the Holy See.

Washington has only had full diplomatic relations with the Vatican for 25 years and most ambassadors until now have been wealthy (usually Irish-American) political donors.

The outgoing ambassador, Mary Ann Glendon, is also a theologian but she disapproves of Obama so much that she turned down Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal because the president received an honorary doctorate from the university.

Born in Havana, Diaz is the son of a waiter and a data-entry operator and he was the first member of his family to attend college. Fluent in English, Spanish and Italian, he is a liberal Catholic theologian who served on the Obama campaign’s Catholic advisory board.

Unlike some of the president’s other nominees, he has no history of political fundraising and official records show he gave just $1,000 to the Obama Victory Fund.