I’ve been hearing what I guess you’d call credible rumors from a number of informed people both inside and outside the Obama administration that Judith McHale, the former president and CEO of the Discovery Channel, is going to be tapped imminently as the next Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Al Kamen at The Washington Post has been all over the prospective McHale buzz, but in the last day, several people have told me they expect an announcement very soon. Neither the White House nor the State Department would comment on McHale.
It’s an interesting choice. McHale doesn’t have a diplomatic background. But neither did Jim Glassman, the recently departed undersecretary whom public-diplo watchers considered the office’s first success story. McHale, though, is said to be close to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and has been a big donor to Democratic politicians, shelling out over $100,000 during the 2008 campaign cycle. Marc Lynch recently made a case against her, but I’ve heard support for her from career diplomats as well.
If indeed McHale gets the job, it’ll raise the question of the which direction the Obama team wants to take public diplomacy. Under former President George W. Bush, who placed loyalist Karen Hughes in the job in 2005 — widely seen as a disaster — the undersecretary became the lead for strategic communications across the government, tasked with convening, coordinating and executing the U.S. communications strategy abroad. It’s unclear whether the Obama administration will continue that model. Denis McDonough, a close Obama adviser, has the strategic communications portfolio at the National Security Council. Will McDonough play the role in the interagency process that the undersecretary of state played in the Bush administration?
I’ll have more on all this later.