With a newly elected Democratic president, this is the season of speculation, where names are being floated as potential ambassador picks. And this time around, Disney’s executive chairman Bob Iger is getting attention as a prospect for one of the highest profile foreign posts, China.
But while there is a lot of talk of Iger and others (including Comcast’s David L. Cohen and former MPA chairman Chris Dodd), it’s still just that: talk.
Not only is it premature, but the polarization in the Senate could make things dicey for any nominee, much less one who comes from the ranks of Hollywood, a favorite punching bag of the right.
Joe Biden’s team is said to be concentrating right now on its top-level cabinet picks. Team Biden has been sending out word that the speculation is premature and that nominations won’t be considered until after January 20. Last week, Sean Savett, who has been working on the transition team for Biden, reacted to a rumor that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had been offered an ambassadorship to The Bahamas and declined.
“This is not true. No decisions on ambassadorships outside of UN have been made,” Savett wrote.
Iger isn’t the only deep-pocket Tinseltown name being tossed into the embassy speculation mix. As happened several times during the Obama era, longtime donor and presidential confidant Jeffrey Katzenberg has also been rumored of late to be up for a plum overseas posting. However, a source with knowledge of the former Quibi boss’ situation bluntly says that such talk is bogus at best.
This isn’t to say an ambassadorship for a Hollywood figure would not be so out of the ordinary. After Barack Obama’s presidential victory, he tapped Charles Rivkin, then CEO of WildBrain Media, and Nicole Avant, a music industry executive and producer, to be ambassadors to France and The Bahamas, respectively. Rivkin is now the chairman of the Motion Picture Association, and Avant is a producer.
Four years later, Obama selected Colleen Bell, a television producer, as ambassador to Hungary, and HBO executive James Costos as ambassador to Spain.
But this time around, the confirmation process could very well be a hurdle, particularly given the attacks Republicans have been prone to make on showbiz. Things will be smoother if Democrats win control of the Senate in the January 5 runoffs, and either way, much depends on timing and the nature of anti-Biden intransigence. But for politicians on the left and the right, the Walt Disney Co. has been a sure-fire way to draw attention.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has attacked Disney and other studios for “kowtowing” to China, and he was among a group of lawmakers in both parties who signed a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek in September expressing concerns over the credits of Mulan because they included a note of thanks to Chinese authorities who have been cited for human rights abuses. An executive for the company later said that the movie was almost entirely shot in New Zealand, but some locations were used in China and that it was standard practice to acknowledge local governments in the credits.
On the other side of the partisan divide is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who has chided Disney for the pay of its theme park workers compared with that of top executives, including Iger. The company recently said that it would lay off 32,000 workers, mostly in its theme parks, which face severe restrictions on attendance because of the coronavirus pandemic. One senior Hollywood executive with strong DC ties said that Iger would hit turbulence. “Hell no. There is no way that Iger would pass a confirmation hearing,” given the scrutiny facing the next posting in Beijing.
Meanwhile, Cohen, senior executive vice president at Comcast, has been mentioned as a potential ambassador to the UK. In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said that he talked to Cohen about a high-profile ambassador post or that of commerce secretary. Cohen, who was once Rendell’s chief of staff, held Biden’s first major fundraiser. Comcast has called the speculation premature. Dodd’s name has long been floated as a potential ambassador to Ireland. He recently declined comment on those prospects.
None of this is to say that these ambassador picks would not be qualified, even very well qualified — particularly when compared to some other nominees of the past. Iger, for instance, has a raft of experience interacting and negotiating with senior leadership in China, particularly when it came to building the massive Shanghai Disneyland, and he himself considered running for president this year. There are also less high-profile postings, outside of world hotspots, that wouldn’t be such a flashpoint.
While ambassador posts come with a certain level of glamour and cachet, there are downsides. Whoever is an ambassador will be stepping into a role assisted by career diplomats with far greater knowledge of the bureaucracy of the mission, and they may be subject to the scrutiny of the State Department, including inspector general audits. There is also the matter of pay — there are healthy benefits, but salaries run around $150,000 per year, a fraction of what top executives are accustomed to getting.
Money isn’t an issue for many of those who are tapped for ambassadorships, typically from the ranks of campaign bundlers and top donors. The postings are intriguing enough for many in show business to make a career turn, even with the scrutiny. The likes of Shirley Temple Black and John Gavin have served as ambassadors, and others who have held posts describe it as an experience of a lifetime, even with the drawbacks.
Yet more often than not, speculation as to who will get these posts doesn’t pan out. Back in 2012, Anna Wintour was floated as an Obama pick as ambassador to the UK or France. She got neither posting.
Chances are that the coming weeks will see even more industry names floated as potential ambassador picks, but there is still a ways to go before the choices become reality.
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