Why can’t David Cohen and Amy Gutmann be ambassadors?


In the 1970s and ‘80s, Philadelphia was home to the greatest third baseman in history. Mike Schmidt on a baseball diamond was a wonder to behold—he hit for power, he came through in the clutch, he was a Gold Glove defensive player. Yet, perhaps because he carried himself with the detached demeanor of someone who knows he’s kick-ass, our town booed him mercilessly. It prompted the ever-introspective Schmidt to utter one of the great lines of media criticism:

“Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day,” he said.

I was reminded of Schmidt’s pithy critique after reading a recent Inquirer front page story headlined “Penn’s Amy Gutmann and Comcast’s David Cohen Could Land Plum Ambassador Jobs Thanks to Biden Ties.”

In the piece, Jonathan Tamari and Sean Collins Walsh, normally solid reporters both, hold up the nomination of Penn President Gutmann to be ambassador to Germany and the anticipated appointment of Comcast executive Cohen as the nation’s representative to Canada as somehow a function of shady pay-to-play politics. Cohen, we’re told, has been a longtime Biden fundraiser who once held an event that raised about $700,000 in contributions to Biden’s presidential bid; Gutman paid Biden, then the former-vice president, $911,000 over close to three years to make public appearances on campus as the school’s “Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor.”

Tamari and Walsh construct an argument, backed up by a few quotes from career diplomats and convenient all-purpose sourcing by way of the phrase “experts say,” that is best found in the piece’s thesis: “But several foreign-policy experts said the nominations, if they happen, would continue a long-standing bipartisan tradition of using important foreign-affairs jobs to reward friends, political allies, and donors rather than expertise.”

The problem with the Inquirer piece is there is no nod given to where Tamari and Walsh are coming from. Nor is there critical context given. Just what does an ambassador do, anyway? Are Cohen and Gutmann really unqualified to serve?

To back the claim that something nefarious is afoot, we hear from one career diplomat that “no other advanced country routinely puts amateurs in charge of its embassies,” another that calls these types of appointments “patronage,” and from a good-government activist who says that “this is a corrupt practice that we have not had any success at changing.”

Now, before we dive into precisely what’s wrong with this straw man argument, let me do what Tamari and Walsh do not: Put my cards on the table. I know and like President Gutmann, and think that, on balance, she’s done a terrific job at Penn, particularly when it comes to diversifying the student body and making Ivy League education more accessible to historically underrepresented groups. (That hasn’t stopped me from asking important questions of her.)

And I’ve known Cohen for decades and count him as a friend, which hasn’t kept him from letting me know in no uncertain terms when he feels I’ve gotten something wrong. But make no mistake: I shudder to think where our city would be these last few decades without the locally patriotic contributions of leaders like Cohen and Gutmann.

So that’s where I’m coming from. The problem with the Inquirer piece is there is no nod given to where Tamari and Walsh are coming from. Nor is there critical context given. Just what does an ambassador do, anyway? Are Cohen and Gutmann really unqualified to serve?


Under President Trump, we did, in fact, see at least one egregious example of ambassadorships as political payback. Gordon Sondland made his fortune in the hotel business and made a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee before being named ambassador to the European Union. Testimony during the first Trump impeachment trial (the one having to do with extorting Ukraine to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden, as opposed to the one about exhorting an army of low information citizens to storm the capitol) revealed Sondland to, uh, not exactly be Churchillian. One diplomat under oath called him “comical,” “dangerous” and a “counterintelligence risk.”

So, given the Sondland precedent, Tamari and Walsh are indeed writing about a real issue. But is there any universe in which Cohen and Gutmann can fairly be compared to a boob like Sondland? In their varied careers, both have exhibited stunning policy chops, run immensely complex organizations, and—most importantly—have exhibited a talent for diplomacy throughout their time on the public stage, arguably the most important qualification for an ambassador.

In fact, the Constitution is silent on what makes for a qualified ambassador; it simply states that the president shall nominate and the Senate shall advise and consent. But, according to Ryan Scoville in a…

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