Well it certainly wasn’t a snap decision. But Australia finally has its US ambassadorial pick from US President Donald Trump. And his nominee says he is honoured by the president’s decision.
If Arthur B Culvahouse Jr is approved by the US Senate, not a given in the poisonous American political landscape, he likely will not have much trouble getting a phone call from the president in the Oval Office.
Culvahouse, known in Washington DC as AB, is a White House insider and trusted Republican Party stalwart who has worked for Trump and other presidents in the past half century, including Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.
Described as a ‘gentlemanly DC lawyer’, Culvahouse has had the responsibility for vetting some of America’s landmark appointments, including Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chairman and Anthony Kennedy as a Supreme Court judge.
Trump, who announced late on Monday his intention to fill the two-year US ambassador to Australia vacancy in Canberra with Culvahouse, relied on him in 2016 to vet candidates for vice president, leading to the selection of Mike Pence.
Perhaps Culvahouse’s most infamous role was in 2008 when he vetted candidates for Republican presidential nominee John McCain and came up with one of the most controversial picks in US political history — little-known Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
In a 2009 speech to the National Press Club in Washington DC, Culvahouse recounted the crucial conversation he had with McCain that resulted in Palin being the VP pick.
‘What’s your bottom line?’ said McCain, asking Culvahouse about his view on Palin.
Culvahouse said he replied: ‘John — high risk, high reward’.
McCain, the maverick Arizona senator who would become overshadowed by Palin in his failed presidential battle with victor Barack Obama, liked Culvahouse’s response.
‘You shouldn’t have told me that,’ McCain replied to Culvahouse, according to the lawyer.
‘I’ve been a risk-taker all my life.’
Hollywood actor John Rothman played Culvahouse in the Golden Globe and Emmy-winning HBO film Game Changer about the McCain–Palin campaign.
Trump’s failure to find an ambassador has led to frustration in Canberra, although James Caruso, who has been Charge d’Affaires at the US embassy in Canberra, has received high praise for filling the void.
Culvahouse currently holds the title of chair emeritus at international law firm of O’Melveny & Myers.
A spokesman for O’Melveny said Culvahouse would not be doing interviews but ‘is honoured by the nomination and looks forward to the Senate confirmation process’.
‘We’re happy for AB and know that he would do an outstanding job in Canberra,’ the firm’s spokesman said.
Ted Frank, a New York-based lawyer who helped Culvahouse vet Palin, said the US and Australia would be well served if Culvahouse was confirmed by the Senate.
‘Mr Culvahouse is an excellent and admirable attorney who will make a fine diplomat,’ Mr Frank told AAP.
The announcement, coming just hours before the US midterm elections, followed a scathing article by The Atlantic last week titled ‘Trump’s Empty State Department’ where the absence of an ambassador to Australia was the focus.
‘So why can’t Australia get more respect from the Trump administration?’ The Atlantic asked.
It detailed how almost half of the top-level jobs in the State Department were still empty two years into the Trump administration.
Mel Sembler, appointed US ambassador to Australia by his friend President George HW Bush in 1989, detailed the advantage ambassadors have when they enjoyed a close relationship with the president.
‘As an example of this, while attending a state dinner at the White House in 1989 I was reminded by then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke that it had been over 20 years since a US President had visited Australia,’ Mr Sembler told AAP.
‘He asked if I could influence President George HW Bush to pay such a visit.
‘Before the evening was over I had a commitment from President Bush and Barbara Bush to come to Australia.
‘By the time arrangements were made and that visit took place in 1991, it had been 25 years since a US President had visited Australia.
‘Since that visit by President Bush, every US President has visited Australia, thereby strengthening the bonds and relationship between our two countries.’
Trump originally selected former US Pacific Command commander Harry Harris as Australian ambassador, but before his confirmation Harris was diverted to take up the role in political hot spot South Korea.
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The Australian Tribune with AAP