Sam Fox, President Bush’s controversial recess appointment as ambassador to Belgium, is vowing to continue donating to political candidates during his time in Brussels while forgoing contributions to 527s, the campaign vehicle that sparked the recent political firestorm that derailed his Senate confirmation.
The decision to remain involved in the 2008 campaign on any level could prove contentious for Fox, given the tradition that ambassadors leave politics at the water’s edge, and could further inflame the debate over his selection. Senate Democrats, furious over the Missouri mogul’s 2004 donation to the GOP-allied group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have vowed to fight Bush’s decision to appoint Fox as ambassador during Congress’s spring recess. The appointment came after Bush’s earlier withdrawal of Fox’s nomination in the face of certain defeat.
Given the stakes, Fox’s vow to continue his campaign-giving — the activity that landed him in hot water — might seem risky. But for those who know him best, it is hard not to bet that Fox, 77, ultimately will prevail. First, there is the matter of his seeming constitutional predisposition for success: Raised by poor immigrant Jews in rural Missouri during the Depression, Fox has, by his own estimation, “lived the American dream.” He can point to financial assets reportedly in excess of $500 million, accolades as a major philanthropist in his hometown of St. Louis and beyond, a place in the country’s innermost Republican circle and a joyful 53-year marriage that has brought five children and 14 grandchildren.
Then there is Fox’s character, long ago tailor-made for delicately sidestepping his way past contradiction and conflict.
Speaking to the Forward this week from Washington, where he was busy attending a State Department seminar on terrorism, Fox recalled a backwoods upbringing that encouraged him to manage competing identities from an early age. At home, the ambassador was a dutiful Jewish son who raised chickens that his father slaughtered according to laws of kashruth. From his Christian peers, who eventually elected him president of their senior class, he learned to hunt wild fowl. At 11, Fox bought his first gun — a Stevens from the Sears catalog — which he didn’t tell his father about until high-school graduation.
And what would Dad have said, had he known?
“Oh, my God,” Fox said, chuckling.
The businessman’s more recent political adventures have not drawn much laughter from Senate Democrats, who have asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate whether two conflicting federal laws prevent Fox from serving legally. To serve as a recess appointee without Senate confirmation, Fox must not draw a salary, but Democrats charge that a separate statute bars ambassadors and other American officials with congressionally fixed salaries from working without pay. The matter is currently pending.
At Fox’s February confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his parade of supporters included both Missouri senators, Republican Christopher “Kit” Bond and Democrat Claire McCaskill, as well as Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Now famously an independent, Lieberman quipped that his backing gave Fox “tri-partisan” support.
The hearing’s fireworks were supplied by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who excoriated Fox for his 2004 support of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The organization — one of the so-called 527 groups that operates independently of political parties and candidates — is now infamous for its damaging television advertisements alleging that Kerry, then a presidential candidate, had exaggerated claims about his military service during the Vietnam War.
At his Senate hearing, Fox called Kerry a “hero” and insisted that he was and always had been opposed to 527 groups, which he characterized as “mean and destructive.” But he did not dwell on the apparent contradiction between such sentiments and his 2004 contribution. When Kerry asked him who had requested the Swift Boat donation, Fox said he could not remember. He has flatly refused to apologize.
“It was a matter of politics,” Fox told the Forward. “What I did was absolutely in accordance with the law, and in accordance with the way politics are in America. I did nothing wrong and nobody ever said I did, and therefore I have nothing to apologize for.”
According to federal guidelines, ambassadors are not barred from making individual campaign contributions but are limited in active campaign work. One former Democratic ambassador appointed by former president Bill Clinton told the Forward he had made political donations while serving and that he believed the practice was common.
Fox, a political centrist, would seem to tolerate a degree of ideological compromise. Although he is one of the country’s biggest Bush donors, who has personally known Bush cousin William H.T. “Bucky” Bush for three decades and George H.W. Bush for two, Fox nonetheless describes himself as a pro-choice moderate. During the 2006 election, he supported the unsuccessful re-election bid of Senator Jim Talent, a Missouri Republican who fought against stem-cell research. At the same time, Fox gave generously to a political action committee that backed a ballot initiative to safeguard the legality of stem-cell research in Missouri.
A longtime supporter of the Boy Scouts, Fox demurs when asked if he approves of the group’s ban on gay troop leaders, insisting that “it really isn’t an issue.”
“This is something that was forced on them, so they had to make a decision, but I’ve never heard of a case where anyone has been denied involvement in the Scouts because of their sexual orientation,” Fox told the Forward. “I have some very good friends who are homosexuals. I don’t have any problem there, none whatsoever. What makes people great are their values, not their sexual orientation.”
Unfazed by apparent contradictions, Fox seems to believe that, based on his overwhelming success as founder, chairman and CEO of the Harbour Group, in work and in politics good leadership is as important as ideology.
“As a businessman, I know if a company has bad management, it’s a bad company,” Fox said. “And it’s true for any organization… [including] the federal government.” Like George W. Bush, he goes to bed early and rises early to exercise. A former colleague at the Republican Jewish Coalition, where Fox served as chairman until recently, described him as a “hands-on” leader willing to involve himself at the level of “a fine-tooth comb.”
Fox’s views on leadership go a long way toward explaining his decision to back former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the 2008 presidential race. Romney, a co-founder of Bain Capital, is, like Fox, the kind of man who seems to attract success, and who approaches politics with an emphasis on good management.
Although Fox’s ambassadorship means he will no longer play an active role in Romney’s national campaign, his son Jeff chairs the Romney operation in Missouri. (Fox’s three sons have followed him into the Harbour Group, Reform Judaism and bird hunting; his two daughters, both Orthodox, live in Israel.)
If it is Fox’s participation in bare-knuckled politics that has drawn headlines in recent weeks, those who know him in St. Louis, Democrats included, describe him as well suited to the life of an ambassador, a gracious host who knows how to move in diverse circles and put people at ease.
Preparing with his wife, Marilyn, to move across the Atlantic in a few weeks, Fox has much the same thing to say of his new associates in Belgium.
“I think they are going to make excellent members of the U.N. Security Council,” Fox said cheerfully. “The Belgian people are very diplomatic.”