New Hampshire's Other Political Claim to Fame: Ambassadors
Scott Brown is the latest NH resident to be named a US ambassador
For many around the world, New Hampshire is known as the place that kicks off the presidential race, and thus where the next leader of the free world gets his or her start. In some countries, however, the state might be known in a different way: as the place that the US ambassador to their country comes from.
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump nominated New Hampshire resident Scott Brown to serve as the US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa. Brown is hardly the first person from New Hampshire to represent our country abroad. In fact, a Salem resident just returned from a long stint as the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, an important Middle Eastern outpost.
For the most part, an ambassadorship such as Brown’s is largely ceremonial. Unless there’s an international crisis or the country is a major political player or economic power (think Germany and China), most US ambassadors primarily serve as the eyes and the ears for the American administration and as a point of contact for the local government.
Indeed, during Brown’s hearing in front of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Brown vowed that he would “hope to dramatically assist in the promotion of even greater economic, scientific and cultural exchanges between the United States and New Zealand, including strengthening Pacific cooperation. With regard to investments, I will focus on both New Zealand’s investment in the United States and American investment in New Zealand.”
Though Brown did his research and told the president that it was his first choice, Brown had never visited New Zealand before his nomination. Nonetheless, with the backing of both US senators from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, all Democrats, Brown is expected to be confirmed by the Senate for the job.
Brown, a Republican, is a former US senator from Massachusetts. He served the remaining three years of Ted Kennedy’s term following Kennedy’s death, but ultimately lost the re-election. He then moved to New Hampshire where he unsuccessfully ran against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for Senate in 2014.
(We should note here that, while he claims New Hampshire as his home, and the premise of this entire column is that he is a New Hampshire resident, the White House press release concerning his nomination states that he’s from Massachusetts. Indeed, during his hearing, he addressed that very issue by referring to “our region,” rather than naming one state or the other.)
Brown has turned down all press interviews since he was nominated, which is typical given that any slip-up could derail his confirmation.
Brown is just the latest person from New Hampshire to serve as a US ambassador. In fact, Brown would become at least the ninth from the state to do so. In any administration, most ambassadors are largely chosen because they were either big campaign donors or major political players. Brown was one of the first major backers of the Trump campaign ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
While this might go against the notion of Trump’s adage to “drain the swamp,” there is a good reason behind giving these posts to the political elite: the position doesn’t pay. In fact, depending on the outpost, US ambassadors could spend hundreds of thousands of their own money to put on parties and other events. The staff of the embassy that helps run official diplomatic duties behind the scenes are career officials paid by US taxpayers.
The period when New Hampshire had the most ambassadors was during the Clinton administration when three Granite Staters served overseas: Terry Shumaker (Trinidad), George Bruno (Belize) and Dick Swett (Denmark.) The three had something very important in common: They were all early backers of Clinton in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, probably the most critical contest leading to Clinton getting the Democratic nomination.
Since then, New Hampshire has had just one ambassador: James Smith of Salem, to Saudi Arabia. Given the importance of this role, President Barack Obama didn’t fill the position with a donor or big-time political player. He felt that Smith had the required diplomatic skills and was the correct person for a post in such a sensitive region.
The most prominent and famous US ambassador from New Hampshire was John Winant. Winant, a Republican, was a three-time governor of New Hampshire, and at the time there were rumblings that he could successfully run for president. To head that off, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him to be the first head of the Social Security office. Eventually, he was appointed as the ambassador to England at a critical time. Winant’s predecessor, Joe Kennedy, favored appeasement of Nazi Germany. Winant stood by Winston Churchill and the nation, earning him accolades both abroad and at home. (You can learn much more about Winant and the unveiling of his new statue in Concord in last month’s feature story by Joe Foote, available online at nhmagazine.com/people.)
Winant also had ties to another ambassador. In the 1920s, Winant helped secure a loan to create what is now the Concord Monitor. The man who put together the deal and ran the paper, James Langley, served for two years as the ambassador to Pakistan during the Eisenhower administration.
Long before instant communications, the role of US ambassadors in a foreign land was different. Not only did they serve as the eyes and ears for the American government, they were also largely autonomous outposts. Today’s ambassadors, Brown included, are asked to consider their work in a larger world context: from that host nation’s place in everything from the fight against global terrorism to international trade.
This might be especially hard for diplomats under President Trump. He campaigned on a call for the United States to be less engaged around the world. One of his first acts in office was to fire all currently serving ambassadors at once. This broke with the precedent of allowing at least a brief grace period, during which extensions would be given to a small number of ambassadors on a case-by-case basis, especially those with children currently enrolled in school. Typically, “political” ambassadors — major donors and those with close ties to the president — nearly always leave at the end of the president’s term, and a few ambassadors who are career diplomats often stay in their posts.
Even in these complicated times, Brown didn’t pick a bad place to live for a few years. And when he comes back, he’ll have a new title: Ambassador.