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Lou Susman, top Democratic financier and former ambassador, talks politics and foreign affairs

Lou Susman
Jo Mannies | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Native St. Louisan Lou Susman – among the most prominent Democratic financiers in national politics -- is back after four years abroad in “the greatest job in world.”

Susman has just ended a stint as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, arguably the most prestigious ambassadorship that any president awards. Those posts often go to the politically connected – if they also have the gravitas to handle the job as the U.S.' top emissary to the country closest to the United States’ roots.

On Wednesday, Susman was at Webster University to relate his experiences and his observations about the “special relationship’’ between the U.S. and Great Britain. He also spoke about the headline-grabbing events in war-torn Syria, Iran and the ongoing tangle between Israel and the Palestinians.

His address, "The Transatlantic Alliance: Past, Present and Future," was part of the university’s Walker Speaker Series.

Events are so fast-paced these days, Susman said in an interview, “I have to keep changing my speech.”

As the London-based U.S. ambassador, Susman was in a unique position, hosting the president, secretaries of state and defense and traveling to  hotspots, including Afghanistan.

“I’ve seen a lot of crises, but I don’t think I’ve seen as many at once,’’ Susman said.

Susman's particularly concerned about the future of Syria, where he observed that the rebels are split into factions and have been infiltrated by terrorist groups like al Qaeda.

Iran, he said, is “losing $3 billion a month’’ because of the trade sanctions and may just reach an agreement to end its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Meanwhile, Susman also is concerned about the turmoil in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East.

Still, Susman recalled happier events during his watch in London:  a change in the British government, the 2012 Olympics, a royal wedding and the Queen’s Jubilee.

As ambassador, he and his wife lived at the historic 35-room Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence. The estate includes the largest in-city park in London outside that of Buckingham Palace.

As ambassador, Susman was barred from being involved in politics.

Before going to London, Susman was the retired vice chairman of Citigroup Inc. and had been a senior partner at the former law firm of Thompson & Mitchell in St. Louis.

Now, he is back in Chicago, taking on new corporate roles as chairman of the public relations firm Edelman and as a consultant to BDT Capital Partners and Henry Crown & Co., both in Chicago.

But in the political world, Susman is best known for his 40-year role as an indispensible “money man,’’ who knew how to amass the large sums of campaign money needed to run for top offices, often the presidency.

He served as finance chairman for presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004 and held similar fundraising roles for President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (who ran twice for president), former Sen. Bill Bradley (who sought the presidency in 2000), and the late Sens. Thomas F. Eagleton, D-Mo., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

Susman also served 10 years on the Democratic National Committee.

Even with his financial expertise, Susman said he has increased concern that “money has been a corrupting factor in politics” – especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision that allows for unlimited independent spending by corporations, unions and other groups. And the donors can be anonymous.

“It’s frightening,’’ he said.

Susman plans to continue to help Democrats but, about to turn 76, he said, “my days of fundraising are over.”

“At this point,’’ he said with a slight smile, “people call you for advice.”

In any case, Susman said he’s planning to focus these days on another project: “relaxing.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.