Article from June 2016
In early 2014, after decades of government and nonprofit work that reflected a passion for public service, Cassandra Butts got a reward — or so she thought. She was nominated by President Obama to be the next United States ambassador to the Bahamas.
It wasn’t an especially high-profile gig at the crossroads of the day’s most urgent issues, but it was a longstanding diplomatic post that needed to be filled, and she had concrete ideas about how best to do the job.
“She was very excited,” her sister, Deidra Abbott, told me.
The Senate held a hearing about her nomination in May 2014, and then … nothing. Summer came and went. So did fall. A new year arrived. Then another new year after that.
When I met her last month, she’d been waiting more than 820 days to be confirmed. She died suddenly two weeks later, still waiting. She was 50 years old.
The delay had nothing to do with her qualifications, which were impeccable. It had everything to do with Washington. She was a pawn in its power games and partisanship.
At one point Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, had a “hold” on all political nominees for State Department positions, partly as a way of punishing President Obama for the Iran nuclear deal.
At another point Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, put a hold specifically on Butts and on nominees for the ambassadorships to Sweden and Norway. He had a legitimate gripe with the Obama administration over a Secret Service leak of private information about a fellow member of Congress, and he was trying to pressure Obama to take punitive action. But that issue was unrelated to Butts and the Bahamas.
Cotton eventually released the two other holds, but not the one on Butts. She told me that she once went to see him about it, and he explained that he knew that she was a close friend of Obama’s — the two first encountered each other on a line for financial-aid forms at Harvard Law School, where they were classmates — and that blocking her was a way to inflict special pain on the president.
Cotton’s spokeswoman did not dispute Butts’s characterization of that meeting, and stressed, in separate emails, that Cotton had enormous respect for her and her career.
That’s Washington for you. Deeply admiring someone is supposed to be a consolation for — and not a contradiction of — using him or her as a weapon.
Senators from both parties have long employed short holds on nominations for leverage with the White House. But right now the practice is extreme and egregious: a tactic that’s turned into a tantrum.
Because of such holds, Norway didn’t have an ambassador for more than 850 days, and confirmation of the new ambassador to Sweden took nearly 500 days.
When Butts died on May 25 — she had acute leukemia, but didn’t know it and hadn’t felt ill until just beforehand — the Bahamas had gone without an ambassador for 1,647 days.
“All Cassandra wanted to do was serve her country,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama,told me. “Looking back, it is devastating to think that through no fault of her own, she spent the last 835 days of her life waiting for confirmation.”
Maybe the Bahamas, Norway and Sweden aren’t pivotal to us. But we have relations with each. We have ambassadors — or mean to. How do we guarantee the country’s security and get its business effectively done when the Senate shows such disregard for that? How do we look on the world stage?