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Swift Boat connection sinks Bush's nominee

After senators skewer Sam Fox for donating $50,000, he is dropped from consideration as U.S. envoy to Belgium.

March 29, 2007|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Facing almost certain defeat in the Senate, the White House on Wednesday withdrew the ambassadorial nomination of Sam Fox, who contributed $50,000 to the Swift Boat veterans' controversial campaign against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential race.

President Bush had nominated Fox, a St. Louis businessman, to be the U.S. envoy to Belgium.

The withdrawal, a rare setback for the sort of nomination that normally would sail through the Senate, reflected both the muscle Democrats are exercising in Congress and the problems likely to surround any Bush appointee linked to the attacks on Kerry.

Coupled with the Democratic-led investigations into whether politics played a central role in the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, the failed Fox nomination demonstrates the degree to which the landscape has changed for Bush on Capitol Hill.

Fox was a key donor to Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, the group that raised questions about Kerry's record as a Navy lieutenant during the Vietnam War. Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Heart decorations for his service in Vietnam, but the group -- in television ads and e-mail messages -- maintained he had exaggerated his actions in combat.

Kerry, joined by some who served with him, disputed the group's claims. But many political analysts believe that he and his campaign were slow in responding to the Swift Boat group and that its attacks hurt his credibility in his tight contest with Bush.

Kerry, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, subjected Fox to sharp questioning during the panel's hearing on the nomination last month.

Kerry scolded him for contributing to a group the senator said was "smearing and spreading lies."

He pressed Fox on who sought the contribution, but the nominee said he could not remember. "I've given away sums much larger than that to a lot of other places, and I can't tell you specifically who asked me, no."

In a statement issued shortly after the White House decision to withdraw the nomination was announced, Kerry said, "Sam Fox had every opportunity to disavow the politics of personal destruction and to embrace the truth. He chose not to."

He added: "The White House made the right decision to withdraw the nomination. I hope this signals a new day in political discourse."

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Fox's "unwillingness to denounce the reprehensible activities of the Swift Boat organization and express regret for providing $50,000 to bankroll the organization convinced me that he would not be an acceptable candidate to represent the United States abroad."

The nomination was withdrawn less than an hour before the committee was scheduled to vote on it, amid indications that Fox would be defeated.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush was unaware of Fox's contribution when he nominated him. She said Bush "believes that Mr. Fox is qualified to serve as ambassador to Belgium."

Fox, chief executive of the Harbour Group, a privately owned equity management company, was nominated for the post in January.

Citing what she said was "a long list of accomplishments, including being named St. Louis Citizen of the Year, Perino said of Fox: "He has a proven record of leadership and a strong willingness to serve our country."

"Because of politics, some members of the Senate would have voted against his nomination," she said, expressing disappointment that senators "made their decision based on partisan politics instead of his leadership abilities."

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University and an expert on Congress, said Fox was especially hurt by the size of his contribution to a group seen by many Democrats as out of the mainstream of political activists.

The Senate can be "very, very generous" with "manifestly unqualified high-rollers" picked for ambassadorships, Baker said, but Fox's contribution was "not putting a whoopee cushion under John Kerry; it was hitting him with a two-by-four."

Fox, 77, is national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

He and his wife have donated more than $1 million to a long list of moderate and conservative Republican candidates and causes since the early 1990s.

Speaking Saturday night at a salute to Fox in Florida, Vice President Dick Cheney made no reference to the controversy over Fox, whom he said he had known for years. Cheney called him "a patriot, a gentleman," and said Bush calls him "Foxy."

"The president and I are very grateful to Sam for his hard work and idealism over these many years," Cheney said.


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