In early 2014, after decades of government and nonprofit work, Cassandra Butts got a reward – or so she thought. She was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.
It wasn’t a very high-profile gig, but it was a diplomatic post that needed to be filled, and she had concrete ideas about how best to do the job.
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. She was a pawn in Washington’s power games and partisanship.
At one point Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had a “hold” on all political nominees for State Department positions, partly to punish Obama for the Iran nuclear deal.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., put a hold specifically on Butts and on nominees for the ambassadorships to Sweden and Norway. He had a legitimate gripe with Obama over a Secret Service leak of private information about a member of Congress, and he was trying to pressure Obama to take punitive action. But that was unrelated to Butts.
Cotton released the two other holds, but not Butts’. She told me he told her that he knew she was a close friend of Obama’s and that blocking her inflicted pain on the president.
Cotton’s spokeswoman did not dispute Butts’ characterization of that conversation, and stressed, in separate emails, that Cotton had enormous respect for her and her career.
That’s Washington. Deeply admiring someone is a consolation for – 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.
Because of holds, Norway didn’t have an ambassador for over 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.
Maybe the Bahamas, Norway and Sweden aren’t pivotal to us. But 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 to the world?
And how do we attract the best people to government if they’re subject to the crazy crosswinds Butts found herself in?
Butts could have turned to the private sector and really cashed in. That wasn’t her way. She worked for various Democrats on Capitol Hill, for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for the Center for American Progress and for Obama, including as deputy White House counsel.
Butts knew she wouldn’t be instantly confirmed, her sister told me, but never expected such an enduring limbo. Some friends told her to give up. That wasn’t her way, either.
I learned the details of her situation when I found myself at a dinner with her in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we both attended college. As she told the story, I kept looking for signs of anger and disgust, but she’d clearly worked past any such emotions.
Instead she communicated something like bemused resignation. I was glad for her that she’d reached that point. I was sorry for the rest of us. We should never be resigned to this dysfunctional pettiness, and there’s nothing amusing about it.