Ambassador Gordon Sondland. It has a nice ring to it.
But only if you’re Gordon Sondland. The poor fellow no doubt had this ring in mind when he shelled out $1 million toward the president’s cheerless inauguration festival, hoping against hope that he would get something in return. And this being the Age of Quid Pro Quo, he got his quo—an ambassadorship. I imagine his tiny heart danced a jaunty tarantella. Granted, it is a largely ceremonial post—to the European bureaucratic starship in Brussels. But still. To his friends in Portland, Oregon, where he was heretofore known as the hairless and somewhat chinless builder of midsize, mid-priced hotels, it would give him a certain je ne sais quoi. Henceforth, he would be referred to as the Honorable Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union. “Mr. Ambassador” to those around him.
And since Sondland was appointed by our current president (like many other wealthy, craven moths who flew too close to the orange Trump flame), his attempt to curry favor with the man in the White House has forever attached the Sondland name to the Ukrainian corruption scandal now unfolding before us live from Washington.
He got his quo—an ambassadorship. I imagine his tiny heart danced a jaunty tarantella.
His appearance before the House Intelligence Committee this coming week will be in stark contrast to those of acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent, and former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. The professionals were showstoppers, the Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, and Meryl Streep of the hearings, to Sondland’s Howie Mandel. (Please, no disrespect to Mr. Mandel—I was just searching for someone in show business who was bald and could never be considered an Oscar contender.) If, during these sorry days in Washington, you feel adrift with the America you love, just go back and watch the opening statement of Marie Yovanovitch. It will lift the human spirit and renew your faith in the people tasked with handling the United States’ affairs abroad.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink the almost uniquely American policy of giving sensitive diplomatic posts to car dealers and football-team owners and the like, whose talents largely lie in the area of making money—that, and a willingness to give some of it in return for résumé-laundering. The U.S. is rare among democracies in selling these vital roles to political donors. And the situation is getting worse, not better. After the Second World War, fewer than a third of these appointments went to the donor class.
We’re now nearing a situation in which almost half the U.S.’s 160 ambassadorial posts are being held by appointees. Inasmuch as the fine art of diplomacy is a vital element of the front line of maintaining harmony in a fractured world, this is not only worrying; it’s leading to an erosion of the ranks of the experienced diplomatic corps. Who wants to commit to a lifetime of public service when the plum jobs go to know-nothing nudniks with deep pockets? It certainly doesn’t help that the senior ranks of the American Foreign Service know their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is willing to throw them under a bus on the whim of his erratic commander in chief—himself a legendary bus-thrower-under.
My wife’s father was a diplomat—who served in difficult spots all over the world, including Moscow. He was British ambassador to Yugoslavia during the troubles there. And seeing him work his talents with others, high and low, gave me a special insight into the delicate arts of diplomacy. His words and deeds also confirmed in my mind that this is precisely the sort of activity that should be left in the hands of experienced professionals.
Their boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is willing to throw them under a bus on the whim of his erratic commander in chief—himself a legendary bus-thrower-under.
Fewer than half of America’s political appointees can speak the language of the country they’re assigned to. Fewer than a tenth have even been to the country previously. The current batch includes the ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Robin Bernstein. Her qualifications? She was Trump’s insurance agent (and a member of the Mar-a-Lago club). Kelly Craft, our ambassador to the United Nations, has a qualification dear to the president’s heart: she’s a “gold level” member of the Trump hotel system, having stayed at them more than 20 times. Lana Marks, our ambassador to South Africa, is a handbag designer (and Mar-a-Lago member). David Friedman, our man in Israel, is a bankruptcy lawyer, who has represented the president in one of his many collapses. Carla Sands, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark, is a chiropractor—not to mention a former actress on a series called Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell and on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Ron Gidwitz, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, is the co-founder of a private-equity firm that, among other businesses, has owned low-income housing projects in Illinois.
My guess is that the current crop of political appointees is more incompetent than past classes, but that’s simply because of the caliber of the politician who appointed them, and the administration’s almost comically inept vetting process. Still, they follow in a long line of nincompoops we’ve had representing American interests abroad. We’ve had an ambassador to Nicaragua who, during its devastating earthquake in 1972, was going to commandeer a military plane to fly his sick cat out of the country. Good news: the cat recovered before the plane took off. Seattle realtor Della Newman, George H. W. Bush’s pick to be ambassador to New Zealand, reportedly confessed she wasn’t sure where the country was located. She got the job anyway. Vincent de Roulet, our ambassador to Jamaica under Nixon, had the unfortunate habit of referring to the country’s citizens as “children” and “idiots.” Cynthia Stroum, an Obama appointee who was named ambassador to Luxembourg, created such a toxic office environment that some seasoned staff members applied for postings to Afghanistan and Iraq, just to get out.
They follow in a long line of nincompoops we’ve had representing American interests abroad.
Back to our esteemed ambassador to the European Union. Even before he became one of the “Three Amigos”—alongside Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, the special representative for the negotiations with Ukraine—Gordon Sondland had distinguished himself. He brought a certain, how should we say, casualness to his position. Sondland was a backslapping, first-name-basis sort of diplomat who frequently offered Oval Office meetings as something he could arrange and would give out the cell-phone numbers of American-government officials to foreign interests who wanted to connect with someone in the capital.
Even if he hadn’t blundered into the Ukraine mess by doing the president’s nefarious bidding, Sondland would have been a standout for his plans for the ambassadorial residence. This wasn’t on the level of applying a lick of paint here and replacing a worn carpet there. This was a renovation that would make even his Über-master in Washington proud. Among the costs: almost $100,000 for a pergola, $13,000 for a Jacuzzi heater, $200,000 for a new kitchen, and $130,000 in bathroom renovations. That doesn’t include the $100,000 the State Department had to pay for hotel lodging for the Sondlands while the renovations were being done. (Weren’t donor-class ambassadors chosen in large part because they could pay for this sort of feckless decorating themselves?) That is all a sideline, however. For his gutless intrusions into the Ukraine affair, the man will always be thought of as a diplomatic disaster.
Ex-ambassador Gordon Sondland. That has a nice ring to it.