By Lane Filler
It's been 200 years since the United States kicked off a shooting war with Britain, but that nation may be wondering if we're looking to start another scrap. What else could be signified by rumors that Vogue editor Anna Wintour could be our next ambassador to the Court of St. James's?
One can only imagine befuddled British public servants on the phone with the White House: "Dear Lord, is it something we said?"
The primary qualification for many ambassadorships - the ones in countries we rarely take issue with - is raising and donating wheelbarrows full of money for winning presidential candidates. Presidents would probably like to give jobs to folks who raise money for their opponents, too, if they could only make them take the assignments: "We really hope you'll enjoy your time in Somalia, Ambassador Rove. If you run into any trouble, just call Ambassador Adelson in Iceland. He's always so helpful."
But the gigs go only to the money herders of the successful, like Wintour. Born in Britain but now a U.S. citizen, she cohosted a $40,000-a-head fund-raiser for President Obama in June, and another in August for $35,800 a plate. (I wonder why the meal at the second event was $4,200 less. No dessert? Box wine?)
Granting these posts based on fund-raising is neither new nor limited to Democrats. Richard Nixon famously said, "Anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000," and that was when $250,000 meant something.
But the idea that you can buy a taxpayer-funded job, an awesome title, and the use of the ambassador's mansion is abhorrent. It's been agreed that this needs to stop, and a law went into effect in 1980 demanding that ambassadors be picked based on skills and experience. Now we can celebrate 32 years of ignoring that law.
Patronage works if you pick candidates who are suited to the position as well as being big contributors. Our current ambassador to Paris, Charles Rivkin, got the job by cochairing Obama's California financing efforts. But he ran two large companies, has deep roots in France and in politics, was brought up in a family involved in the diplomatic corps, and is garnering rave reviews from experts here and in Paris.
But when you pick grubbers of money unsuited to the position, watch out. Cynthia Stroum, an investor in start-ups who bundled for Obama like nobody's business, was forced to resign as ambassador to Luxembourg last year after she was described as aggressive, bullying, hostile, and intimidating. She dedicated pretty much all the resources of the embassy to her own comfort. Reports said she forced employees to spend days seeking the perfect umbrella for her patio.
Which type is Wintour? She's most famous for her fictional depiction in The Devil Wears Prada, in which she was ... the devil. She insists on sitting apart from other journalists at fashion shows. She can't bear to be at parties for more than 20 minutes. And it's said her employees are not allowed to ride elevators or start conversations with her.
As for tact, Wintour once said that in Minneapolis, she could "only kindly describe most of the people I saw as little houses." She shared this not with a friend, but on 60 Minutes.
If these jobs matter so little that they can be handed to whoever corrals the most cash for a campaign - regardless of ability to play well with others - they don't need to exist.