Ambassador to the United Kingdom: Who Is Woody Johnson?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Woody Johnson

Despite campaign promises to change Washington, Donald Trump did what almost every president—Republican and Democrat—has done about finding an ambassador for the prestigious London post: he chose a rich campaign donor.


Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, who was nominated to represent the United States at the Court of St. James on January 19, 2017, fills the bill. Johnson, who owns the New York Jets football team, is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson healthcare fortune.


Johnson was born April 12, 1947, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, son of Robert Wood “Bobby” and Betty Johnson, and one of five children. He attended the Millbrook School and went on to the University of Arizona, earning a B.A. in history in 1972. While there, he was nearly paralyzed for life after stepping off a bridge after some heavy drinking. He was hospitalized for several months, but recovered. Johnson did work in menial jobs for Johnson & Johnson during college, but that was the extent of his involvement with the company.


Instead, after college Johnson made his way to South Florida. There, he invested in cable television franchises and real estate. In 1977, he married Nancy Sale, a model, with whom he had three daughters: Casey, Jaime and Daisy.


Johnson moved to New York in 1984 and concentrated on his family and managing his investments. He became active in diabetes charities when his daughter Casey was diagnosed with the disease, and later with those benefitting lupus research when Jaime was found to have that condition. In 1994, Johnson, his wife, Nancy, and Casey wrote a book, Managing Your Child's Diabetes. During this period, Johnson also became a major donor to Republican candidates.


In 2000, Johnson bought the Jets. He had no background in sports management, but took a hands-on approach to his team. His results have been mixed, with the Jets going 132-140 in the regular season since Johnson took over. His brother, Christopher, will probably assume management of the Jets while Johnson is in London.


Johnson’s investments apparently did well enough that he had to find some tax dodges. In 2006, he was brought before a Senate panel to testify about shelters in the Isle of Man that were used to offset profits from sales of investments. Johnson eventually settled with the Internal Revenue Service, paying back taxes and interest.


Johnson was a big donor to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. He initially backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 contest, even serving as his finance chairman, but threw his support to Trump in May 2016.


Johnson has seen his share of family tragedies. Two brothers, Keith and Billy, died separately in 1975, Keith after a cocaine overdose and Billy in a motorcycle accident. His daughter, Casey, died in 2010 of diabetic ketoacidosis after being cut off financially from her father.


Johnson and Sale divorced in 2001 and Johnson married Suzanne Ircha, a former actress and equities specialist, in 2009. They have two sons: Robert Wood V and Jack.


Johnson won’t be the first NFL team owner to be an ambassador. Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, served President Barack Obama as ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Trump Picks Jets Owner Woody Johnson as U.S. Ambassador to Britain (by Anne Gearan, Washington Post)

Tax Shelters Saved Billionaires a Bundle (by Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, Washington Post)

Man in the News; Philanthropist and Fan (by Richard Sandomir, New York Times)

Behind the Jets, a Private Man Pushes His Dream (by Duff Wilson, New York Times)

Book Claims Woody Johnson Drunkenly Fell Off Bridge In College While Urinating (CBS New York)


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