Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs: Who Is Charles Rivkin?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Charles Rivkin, whose previous jobs spanned from being the man in charge of the Muppets to Ambassador to France and Monaco, was confirmed February 11, 2014 as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs. The Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs supports U.S. companies wishing to do business overseas, furthers U.S. trade policy objectives and promotes other U.S. economic interests abroad.


Rivkin, who will be 52 in April 2014, is the son of the late William R. Rivkin, a lawyer and Democratic insider who was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg by President John F. Kennedy and ambassador to Senegal and Gambia by President Lyndon Johnson. Rivkin was only a child when his father died in Dakar in 1967. His family established the William R. Rivkin Award in 1968, which is awarded each year by the American Foreign Service Association to a mid-career Foreign Service officer who best exemplifies “constructive dissent” in their duties.


After growing up with his mother and three siblings (Julia, Laura, and Robert), Rivkin went on to attend college at Yale, receiving a B.A. in political science and international relations in 1984. He later earned an MBA from Harvard University.


Rivkin worked as a corporate finance analyst at Salomon Brothers, before joining The Jim Henson Company in 1988 as director of strategic planning. Two years later, he was made vice president. In 1990, he married Susan Melissa Tolson, an analyst at Capital Research Company.


Rivkin continued to rise at the company famous for creating the Muppets, becoming senior vice president and chief operating officer in 1991, executive vice president and COO in 1994, and president and COO in 1995, making him the first chief executive who was not a member of the Henson family. In 2000, he was given the title of CEO, and engineered the sale of the company to the German-owned EM.TV for $1 billion.


By the following year, EM.TV’s legal and financial troubles led to rumors that The Henson Company might again be sold, but after two years of struggling to find a buyer, German executives agreed to sell the company back to the Henson family in 2003, which in turn sold the Muppets franchise to the Walt Disney Company. Rivkin then stepped aside to allow the family to once again run the company, while retaining a position on the board.


During the 2004 presidential campaign, Rivkin was an active supporter of Democratic nominee John Kerry, and served as an at-large California delegate to the Democratic National Convention.


In 2005, Rivkin became president and chief executive officer of Wild Brain, a San-Francisco-based entertainment and animation production company whose television series include Yo Gabba Gabba! and Higglytown Heroes. Rivkin was an executive producer of Yo Gabba Gabba!, which has aired on Nickelodeon and Noggin cable networks.


Outside of his business dealings, Rivkin is a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and the Pacific Council on International Policy.


When Obama shattered campaign fundraising records with a $150 million haul in September 2008, his bundlers in California played a key role in amassing so much cash. Rivkin was one of these major players, serving as Obama’s Southern California finance co-chair. According to, he sent at least $500,000 toward Obama’s campaign committee as a bundler and another $300,000 toward his inaugural committee. Since the 1994 election cycle, Rivkin has personally contributed more than $97,500 to Democrats, including $6,600 to Obama.


Rivkin’s 2009 appointment as ambassador raised eyebrows, coming as it did in the wake of the large fundraising contribution he made to Team Obama. It showed that the newly inaugurated president was following in a long Washington tradition of rewarding donors with choice patronage jobs.


However, most observers agree that Rivkin worked out well as ambassador. He lived in France for a time as a student, giving him an excellent command of the language. One of his biggest challenges in Paris was to attempt to smooth over relations between the United States and France in the wake of reports released by Edward Snowden that the National Security Agency conducted surveillance of French citizens. On June 6, 2012, to commemorate the D-Day landings in Normandy, Rivkin parachuted into the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise with the U.S. Army Golden Knights parachute team.


Rivkin is not the only member of his family to receive an appointment from Obama. His brother, Robert, was selected to be general counsel for the Department of Transportation, and Robert’s wife, Cindy S. Moelis, a close friend of Michelle Obama, was chosen to direct the Commission on White House Fellows. Rivkin’s mother, who died in 2002, and stepfather founded the American Refugee Committee, which helps relocate international refugees.


To Learn More:

Official Biography

Testimony of Charles H. Rivkin, Assistant Secretary Designate for the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs (pdf)

All in the Family -- Husband, Wife, Brother all Make Obama's Team (by Carol Felsenthal, Huffington Post)

Officially In: Charles Rivkin to Paris (Diplopundit)


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