Bon Voyage to the Kaplans

Obama’s ambassador appointment gives us two savvy representatives for the price of one.

Ashley Dresser

A few months ago, I was standing in the living room of the prominent Minneapolis pairing, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. I had only a vague intimation of who they were: âÄúwealthyâÄù âÄúpowerfulâÄù and âÄúa close friend of my friendâÄù (which is why I had been invited to their dinner party) and no idea how important they were to become in just a few weeks time. âÄúI want you all to know that the position wasnâÄôt offered to me,âÄù Mr. Kaplan explained at his going away party, hosted by Wellstone Action, on September 13th. âÄúI was asked if I might wish to become the US Ambassador to MoroccoâĦand of course, this led to much discussion with my partner in crime, Sylvia.âÄù This microscopic statement demonstrates KaplanâÄôs much broader talent for diplomacy: his expression of humility in place of entitlement and his gracious assessment of otherâÄôs needs before making weighted decisions. Even more impressive, these skills are strictly University of Minnesota homegrown. Born in St. Paul in 1936, Sam Kaplan received a B.B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1957, a magna cum laude law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1960, and later went on to serve as President of the Minnesota Law Review. Kaplan is founder and partner of Kaplan, Strangis, and Kaplan law firm in Minneapolis and a fervent democratic backer. It is frequently stated in some circles that when a Democrat dreams of success in the Minnesota political arena, the verbal and financial support and coaching of Sam and Sylvia Kaplan is paramount to their achievement. Over the years, the Kaplans have thrown their weight behind Senators Keith Ellison and Al Franken, the late Senator Paul Wellstone, Mayor R.T. Rybak, and most recently, President Barack Obama. OpenSecrets.org reports their donations to the Obama campaign as ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 and identifies them as âÄúbundlersâÄù: people who have reached their personal contribution limit and turned to solicit the help of their friends. In an MPR interview with Mr. Kaplan on All Things Considered , Tom Crann points out: âÄúItâÄôs no secret that you helped raise a lot of money for the presidentâÄôs campaign and now youâÄôre an ambassador. Is it really the best way to choose our diplomats, and that is – those who help get presidents elected?âÄù Kaplan says yes, âÄúitâÄôs one of several good ways.âÄù He emphasizes that people from the private sector are valuable contributors that can serve to balance the views of the political lifers. A quick glance at Mr. KaplanâÄôs more immediate qualifications makes it easy to disagree with this statement. He doesnâÄôt know Arabic or French or have any previously expressed interest in Morocco. HeâÄôs 72 years old and a Jew. Is his appointment just a cushy retirement post and his religious affiliation a âÄúsymbolic tokenâÄù to a nation that is 99% Muslim? I donâÄôt know. What I do know is based solely on instinct. I received the rare opportunity to be invited into Sam and Sylvia KaplanâÄôs home. It was not a political event. There was no agenda âÄì in fact âÄì as a Minnesota Daily columnist, I was possibly the only official (but off-duty) âÄúmember of the press.âÄù At home and at dinner with friends, Sam and Sylvia seemed completely relaxed. Sylvia cooked up a delicious fare while imparting quips about her family and along with the wine, Sam uncorked all manner of engaging conversation. He might be 72 years old, but he has one hell of a brain! My Midwest-made heart swelled with pride because when their wealth and clout faded away, I realized that they were just âÄúgood peopleâÄù who genuinely cared about the world. At the end of the night, I was even awkwardly compelled to give Mr. Kaplan a hug âÄì because I was so relieved that he was âÄúreal.âÄù When Obama appointed Mr. Kaplan as the US Ambassador to Morocco, he knew full well âÄì as everyone in Minneapolis does âÄì that he was getting two savvy representatives for the price of one. In everything they do, Sam and Sylvia Kaplan operate as a team. It is a spectacular display of give and take âÄì a marriage that is strong enough to withstand both public and private scrutiny and one that bears similarities Paul and Sheila Wellstone and Barack and Michelle Obama. The Kaplans might not yet understand all the intricacies of the U.S. âÄìMoroccan relationship, but they present a double dose of professionalism, stamina, and exceptional potential and (in addition to their deep pockets and solid connections) that is likely why they were chosen. However, Minnesota alum or not, IâÄôm not going to throw my full support behind them yet. In his interview on All Things Considered, Mr. Kaplan outlines his duties as such: âÄúâĦThere are issues in the area of diplomacy or the application of democracy where I think we can be quietly helpful in improving some of their systems and bringing them more into align with what we have.âÄù Keyword: QUIETLY. That sounds like someone who is going into retirement and not looking to ruffle any feathers. Not good, Sam! Of course, because IâÄôve met the man, IâÄôm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he meant âÄúquietlyâÄù in terms of making diplomatic overtures that wonâÄôt blatantly offend the king. Morocco is one of the few Muslim countries that we have a long-standing, positive relationship with. Kaplan acknowledges that there is work to be done, but also points out that Morocco is far more progressive than most of its Middle Eastern counterparts. There will be a noticeable absence in Minnesota politics for the next four years, one that Morocco stands to benefit from, but as Sam Kaplan assured everyone in his bon voyage speech: âÄúWe will be back!âÄù Ashley Dresser welcomes comments at [email protected]