President Biden turns to Hollywood to fill UK ambassador role

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Ben Riley-Smith
·3 min read
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Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Katzenberg attend the 20th Annual Hollywood Film Awards
Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Katzenberg attend the 20th Annual Hollywood Film Awards

Joe Biden is considering turning to Hollywood for his next British ambassador, according to UK officials who are working the phones to closely monitor his selection.

Two top businessmen with a TV background are thought to be in contention for the London job, one of the plum assignments in the US diplomatic circuit.

One is Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former chairman of Walt Disney Studios who is considered one of the most powerful men in the Los Angeles film scene.

At Disney, Mr Katzenberg helped make hits like Aladdin and The Lion King. He later co-founded DreamWorks Animation, which produced Shrek and Kung Fu Panda.

Mr Katzenberg hosted an event for Mr Biden during the presidential election campaign and gave $617,800 to the Biden Victory Fund.

The second is David Cohen, who stepped down as senior executive vice-president of the telecoms giant Comcast this month, when the switch in US president took place.

David Cohen speaks on stage in 2016
David Cohen speaks on stage in 2016

Comcast is one of the largest broadcasting and cable television companies in America, owning Universal Pictures - though Mr Cohen’s role focussed on law and communications.

Mr Cohen is an influential political player in Philadelphia. Mr Biden attended a fundraiser at Mr Cohen's home the day he announced his 2020 presidential bid.

A well-placed UK source said of the two men: “The British job normally goes to someone who’s rich and influential. They actually run businesses. They know what they’re doing.”

n the Hollywood press a third name from the world of the silver screen has been floated: Bob Iger, the current Disney executive chairman who himself once toyed with running for the 2020 presidency.

Unlike in Britain, where ambassadorships are almost always given to career diplomats, in America it is normal for top donors to be handed the roles.

Both Woody Johnson, Mr Trump’s UK ambassador, and Matthew Barzun, Barack Obama’s choice, had helped raise campaign money for their future bosses before getting the jobs.

During the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination Mr Biden did not match a promise by then rival Elizabeth Warren to stop giving top diplomatic jobs to donors.

British officials believe Mr Biden is yet to make his final choice, with a number of other names being discussed as they reach out to well-placed figures for information.

Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, is in the frame, according to some
Bob Iger, the CEO of The Walt Disney Company, is in the frame, according to some

Cindy McCain, the widow of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, has been floated as a possible selection in the media but UK diplomats play down its likelihood.

While she played a notable role in Mr Biden getting elected, with an endorsement followed by his victory in Mr McCain’s home state of Arizona, her appetite for the job is unclear.

Democratic senators such as Chris Coons, dubbed the ‘Biden whisperer’ for his closeness to the new president, have also been touted as possible picks.

Yet with the Democrats’ hold over the US Senate wafer-thin - they control the same number of seats as the Republicans, with vice president Kamala Harris getting the deciding vote on ties - such a path carries political risk.

Ted Kauffmen, one of Mr Biden’s oldest friends in politics who succeeded him as Delaware senator in 2009, ruled himself out of the running this week.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” was Mr Kauffmen’s response when asked on Radio Four’s Today programme on Thursday if he would become the UK ambassador.

“My days of doing this are passed. I’ll be a helper, an adviser, but I'm 82-years-old,” Mr Kauffmen said. He demurred when told that was not much older than Mr Biden, 78.