Two Ambassadors : The Wisdom of Choosing Political Appointees as Diplomats Has Been Debated Since the Nation Was Founded. Two Former Reagan Appointees Offer Case Studies of the Pros and Cons.


John Gavin was not a born diplomat. Appointed ambassador to Mexico in 1981 by his friend and fellow former movie actor, Ronald Reagan, Gavin displayed an instinctive ability to antagonize just about everyone whom diplomats usually try to cultivate.

Even before the Senate confirmed him, Gavin presided at a White House meeting for Mexican newspaper luminaries at which he told the representative of Excelsior, probably Mexico’s most powerful journal, that the newspaper was a “Red rag.” For good measure, he called Mexico’s foreign minister--who luckily was not present--a “Red.”

A few weeks later, at a reception to introduce the new ambassador to U.S. correspondents stationed in Mexico City, Gavin parceled out “an insult for just about everybody,” one reporter says. For Alan Riding of the New York Times, who had just interviewed Gavin, the ambassador made a point of asking his name and the name of his newspaper, as though he had never heard of either. When a Los Angeles Times correspondent was introduced, Gavin told him he was chummy enough with the newspaper’s executives to get uppity reporters fired.


Gavin also got off to a rocky start with the embassy’s professional diplomats, though in retrospect that hardly should have come as a surprise at the State Department. Gavin was a fully committed participant in the Reagan Revolution, which swept into Washington on a platform that singled out the bureaucracy as a main source of the nation’s ills. To the new President and to Reagan supporters like Gavin, Foggy Bottom was alien territory, the preserve of liberal One World thinking that the new Administration intended to reverse. Professional diplomats are used to the role of political whipping boy; Democratic and Republican presidents alike have scorned them as “cookie pushers in striped pants.” But that doesn’t mean they like it, and Gavin’s hostile approach quickly “caused morale problems, to put it mildly,” says a former State Department official.

To make matters worse, Gavin--apparently doubting that more-experienced diplomats would be personally loyal to him--selected a junior Foreign Service officer to be his chief administrative aide. The young aide controlled access to the ambassador’s office and handled much of the day-to-day operation of the embassy. The result, say those familiar with the situation, was chaos. (To his credit, however, Gavin ultimately concluded that his system was not working and replaced his aide.)

Still, Gavin’s debut on the diplomatic stage outraged Mexican officials and unnerved State Department specialists who feared that his disdain for diplomatic conventions would irreparably damage relations between the United States and its prickly, problem-plagued neighbor to the south. Even before Gavin’s appointment was announced, the Mexican press--apparently egged on by government officials--derided him as a lightweight. A columnist in the popular daily La Prensa huffed that “perhaps Mr. Reagan’s personal commitments are such that he must force trash upon us, but we think that our country deserves greater respect and better treatment.” The nation was awash with jokes about whom Mexico should name as ambassador to the United States. One frequent suggestion was Cantinflas, the popular Mexican comedian.

Yet, five years later, when Gavin announced his resignation to return to private business in Los Angeles, opinion among U.S. diplomats was decidedly different. State Department professionals were lavish in their praise, and Gavin was highly regarded in Congress as well. The ambassador’s early gaffes were forgiven and all but forgotten. Staffers who had once grumbled about ineffective leadership described him as a first-class boss. Today he is remembered fondly as the first U.S. ambassador in years who refused to let pass the cheap-shot attacks on the United States that had long been a staple of Mexican politics. Even many Mexicans grudgingly conceded that Gavin’s approach to the job had something to be said for it, although the newspapers and some government officials never warmed to him.

“He certainly didn’t like the Mexican press, and they hated him,” says Joseph John Jova, the last career ambassador to head the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. “Right from the beginning, he presented U.S. views loud and clear even when it was unpopular to do so. Thanks to that, he won the admiration of the American community (in Mexico), and many Mexicans admired him also.”

William A. Wilson seemed to be a natural choice when his close personal friend Ronald Reagan picked him as envoy to the Vatican in 1981. He was a convert to Roman Catholicism and a regular churchgoer. And at the time, the Vatican post was a diplomatic backwater headed by an unpaid, part-time representative of the U.S. government--just the sort of post for someone who had made a fortune in ranching, Southern California real estate and the manufacture of oil-drilling equipment.


During his five years as the top U.S. official in the city-state that serves as headquarters of the world’s largest religious organization, Wilson persuasively lobbied Congress to establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See for the first time since 1867. His effort succeeded, and Wilson became a full ambassador early in 1984.

Under Wilson’s leadership, the Vatican embassy assumed substantially increased importance in U.S. foreign policy. The ambassador and his aides served as a formal link between President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, who share remarkably similar anti-Communist views about Eastern Europe, Central America and other areas of the world. The Vatican also has come to be an important listening post for U.S. spy agencies, because the church collects information from thousands of priests and nuns scattered throughout remote parts of the Third World. Although Washington was able to tap some of that information before full ties were established, the Vatican shares its information more freely with nations that recognize it diplomatically. Wilson is given high marks for his handling of all phases of U.S.-Vatican relations.

It was something of a surprise, then, that by the time Wilson resigned May 20, his early accomplishments were eclipsed by controversy. Before he left office, Wilson had humiliated the Administration with a series of startling indiscretions, the most blatant of which was a secret meeting with Moammar Kadafi at the very time the U.S. government was putting heat on European governments to isolate the mercurial Libyan leader.

What’s more, according to sources with firsthand knowledge of the case, the session with Kadafi was not an isolated case. Despite explicit orders not to do so, Wilson had met several times earlier with Libyan officials--starting in 1982 or perhaps earlier--and had then tried to keep his contacts secret from Washington. When the earlier meetings came to light, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, then undersecretary of state and the department’s third-ranking official, bluntly told Wilson to sever his contacts with the Libyan regime. Wilson went ahead anyway. He also ignored explicit orders to break off contact with fugitive financier Marc Rich and Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, head of the scandal-racked Vatican bank, with whom he had dealings that are still clouded in mystery.

Regardless of what Wilson discussed with Kadafi (and Wilson won’t reveal that even to the State Department, much less to reporters), the meeting was such a breach of the rules that he would have been fired immediately had he been a professional Foreign Service officer. Instead, as a personal friend of the President, he was allowed to stay on for a few weeks and then was permitted to resign.

Gavin and Wilson are both Californians, both friends of the President, both non-career appointees who held their ambassadorial posts for the same first five years of the Reagan Administration. Yet their brief diplomatic sagas are studies in contrast that go to the heart of one of the nation’s longest-running controversies: Should a President reach outside the career Foreign Service to obtain ambassadors for sensitive posts?

The cases of John Gavin and William Wilson aren’t likely to provide any easy answers to the question, which has been debated since the earliest days of the Republic. But their years in Mexico City and the Vatican provide a rare, almost textbook study of the benefits and pitfalls that develop when the President dispatches one of his friends overseas.

In theory, all the ambassadors who head the 141 U.S. embassies around the world represent the President in the countries where they are assigned. Between 60% and 75% of them are career Foreign Service officers, people who have worked their way up through the diplomatic service under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The rest are political appointees, many of them well-heeled contributors to the war chests of the party in power; sometimes they are named without much regard for their aptitude for foreign policy, and only a tiny fraction are genuine personal friends of the President.

“If you get a good ambassador who knows his subject matter and has the basic skills and is also known to be a personal friend of the President, that is an asset,” says a retired Foreign Service professional who held some of the nation’s most sensitive diplomatic posts. “But it is important for people to try to work within the system and not try to go around it to the White House. If the assistant secretary (of State) in charge of the area is not on the same wavelength as the ambassador, you have a problem of delivering mixed signals.”

Gavin and Wilson were both born in Los Angeles--Gavin on April 8, 1932, and Wilson on Nov. 2, 1914--and both graduated from Stanford. Both now live in Southern California, where Gavin is vice president for international relations of Arco, and Wilson pursues his business interests from an office in his Bel-Air home.

Both can point to a longstanding relationship with the President. Gavin’s early career bears some remarkable parallels to the one Reagan followed a generation earlier. Twenty-two years the President’s junior, Gavin, like Reagan, worked as a journeyman actor in a long list of films, few of them memorable. And, like Reagan, he once served as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

Wilson, only three years younger than the President, has been a personal friend of the Reagan family for more than 25 years. After meeting the future President at a California dinner party, Wilson became a strong political backer, participating in Reagan’s gubernatorial campaigns, his unsuccessful run for the presidential nomination in 1976 and his successful bid for the presidency in 1980. He was long a member of Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of wealthy Californians who provided advice and campaign financing throughout Reagan’s career from the governor’s office to the White House. He has served as co-trustee of the Ronald Reagan Trust, which was set up to manage the President’s business affairs to avoid conflicts of interest.

Unlike most ambassadors, who seldom have personal access to the President or his top aides, Gavin knew that he could pick up a telephone anytime he wished and reach the President or at least a key member of the White House staff. But State Department officials say that once he settled into the job, Gavin used his White House contacts sparingly and did not often try to outflank the department, preferring instead to work out problems through normal channels whenever possible.

Wilson, according to State Department files, exploited his friendship with the President to pursue his own private agenda. Officials say he did not often take the problems of the Vatican embassy around the State Department to the White House. But, probably because of his ties with the President, he was not required to follow some of the rules that apply to other diplomats. He was allowed to retain his seat on the board of directors of the Pennzoil Corp., for instance, and to continue some other private business in spite of regulations that require ambassadors to relinquish private business positions.

Gavin capitalized on his White House connections to underline the sometimes unpalatable message he was delivering to Mexican officials. Although some Mexican leaders tried to portray Gavin as a dilettante actor who stinted on his diplomatic homework, it was not easy for them to ignore a man who was known to be close to the President.

When Gavin arrived in Mexico City, he learned, as his predecessors had, that Mexican politics had a long tradition of “gringo-bashing.” If there was drought in northern Mexico, as there often was, it was because the CIA was seeding clouds on the U.S. side of the border, Mexican politicians would charge. But if there was flooding--well, that, too, was the fault of the norteamericanos. Most earlier U.S. ambassadors politely ignored the accusations to avoid irritating the local officials; Gavin, with the full backing of the White House, sought to change that by challenging every criticism of his country that he considered unfair.

“The fact that he was a friend of the President supported our goals and objectives in Mexico,” a former embassy staffer says. “I think he can take credit for raising the maturity of our relationship. There was a Third World mentality operating there, a tendency to blame the United States for everything that went wrong. Gavin challenged these assertions and, over a period of time, Mexican politicians realized that if they were saying these things, they would be called on it.

“Some of the Mexicans would tell him privately, ‘That’s how we get votes around here,’ ” says the former staffer. “Gavin would say, ‘Find some other way to campaign. You can’t use us that way anymore.’ ”

As an even closer friend of the President, Wilson was given more latitude than other ambassadors, and his nominal superiors found it difficult to rein him in. It also seems clear that Kadafi was interested in Wilson because the ambassador had direct lines to the White House, just as the Libyan leader courted former President Jimmy Carter’s brother, Billy. In the Arab world, important business is often done through intermediaries such as friends and relatives. Kadafi seems to think that similar techniques will work with Washington.

No one faults the way Wilson did his primary job of representing the United States at the Vatican. But he did not stop there. One source says dryly: “Perhaps the job was not big enough for him.”

Wilson also took advantage of his relationship with the President to terrify the bureaucracy--and it clearly remains fearful of him even today. He was known at the State Department to be a dangerous enemy, a man with a long memory. Months after his resignation, with Wilson once again a private citizen living thousands of miles away, many State Department officials (including some gone from the government) refuse to talk about him at all. Those who are willing demand assurances that they will not be identified--either by name or even by a vague description of their duties.

Wilson’s strongest critics concede that he never tried directly to get a diplomat fired. One senior member of the embassy staff, whom Wilson suspected of leaking information about his private business activities, was transferred to other duties, but the man’s career apparently was not permanently damaged. Even so, Wilson’s ties to the President remain strong enough to inspire deep paranoia.

“The Foreign Service is an organization that takes a long time to come to understand,” Wilson said in an interview. “I felt that I got along very well with members of the Foreign Service.”

Malcolm Toon, a now-retired career Foreign Service offi cer who served as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Israel, likes to tell the story of his meeting with an admiral who declared that, owing to a lifelong interest in foreign policy, he would like to spend his military retirement as an ambassador.

“I replied that when I retired from the Foreign Service, I’d like to command an aircraft carrier,” Toon says.

“The admiral said that was ridiculous because a naval command requires years of training and experience,” Toon recalls. “I said, ‘That’s how it is with an embassy.’ ”

Since the days of Benjamin Franklin, however, the United States has been sending abroad ambassadors picked from outside the professional diplomatic corps. In 1778, Franklin put aside inventions and journalism to negotiate an alliance with France that may have done more than George Washington’s military strategy to save the new nation from being strangled at birth. And in this century, any list of the nation’s ablest ambassadors would include Ellsworth Bunker, David K. E. Bruce and W. Averell Harriman, all recruited from beyond the career Foreign Service.

Not all non-career ambassadors are so distinguished, of course. For every Franklin, it seems, presidents over the years have selected a man like the brilliant but erratic John Randolph of Virginia, who--during his career in Congress in the early 19th Century--was known for striding through the Capitol in boots and spurs with whip in hand, and who once fought a duel with Henry Clay. Named ambassador to Russia in 1830, Randolph, when presented to the czar, is said to have exclaimed, “Howaya Emperor? And how’s the madam?”

In modern times, some embassies are almost always staffed by non-careerists. The ambassador to Great Britain, for instance, is now traditionally a political appointee. Many of the most sensitive elements of Washington-London relations are handled through other channels. And the post, in one of the world’s most pleasant cities, is a certified plum with which to reward contributions to the party in power. Besides, the expense of official entertainment in London and some other European capitals far exceeds the available government money, and the ambassador is expected to make up the difference from his own pocket. Few career Foreign Service officers can reach that deep.

In the Reagan Administration, the component of political ambassadors has hovered close to the historically high 40% mark, with embassies even in such forbidding capitals as Bucharest, Romania, going to non-career appointees. In earlier administrations, the hardship posts, at least, were considered the preserve of professional diplomats.

Alfred O. Atherton, former director general of the Foreign Service, says he is alarmed at Reagan’s nomination of non-careerists to Third World posts, which once provided the first ambassadorial appointments for Foreign Service professionals. “It is disastrous for morale when a career Foreign Service officer is eligible for his first ambassadorial appointment, only to find the way blocked by a non-careerist,” Atherton says. “Moreover, some top officers have been awaiting reassignment for a very long time because suitable embassies are not available.

“You spend a lot of money training people and then you don’t use them,” he adds. “It is a waste of a national asset.”

Atherton says that the policy of earlier administrations of giving about a quarter of ambassadorial appointments to non- careerists was about right. “This is a trend that has gotten out of hand,” he says.

John Gavin, who describes himself in his “Who’s Who in America” biography as “actor, business executive and diplomat,” bridles at suggestions that he was an amateur at diplomacy. He once chided a guest who had drawn a distinction between professional and non-professional ambassadors, telling him, “I consider myself to be a professional; if you had said non-career, I would have had no objection.”

The son of a Mexican-born mother, Gavin speaks elegant Spanish. As one former diplomat says, “No career officer could top him in terms of his mastery of the language in the Mexican idiom.”

Nevertheless, he was never popular with the Mexican political Establishment. After more than two years on the job, Gavin was accused by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party--known by its initials in Spanish, PRI--and by newspapers that support the party of interfering in Mexican politics.

It started when Gavin attended a dinner given April 22, 1983, by the U.S. consul in Hermosillo, in the border state of Sonora. The guests included Bishop Carlos Quintero Arce, generally regarded as a conservative, and members of the business-oriented National Action Party. Shortly after the dinner, Adolfo Lugo Verduzco, president of the PRI, spoke elliptically of “dark conclaves of the reactionaries.” Though he did not spell it out, there was no doubt that he referred to Gavin’s talks with the bishop and the opposition party.

The newspapers Excelsior and Uno Mas Uno accused the embassy of conspiring with the National Action Party--known by its Spanish acronym PAN--against the PRI, which has dominated Mexican politics for 50 years.

In characteristic fashion, Gavin launched a noisy counterattack. In a speech in Los Angeles the next month, Gavin said: “Some of the press and certain officials who should know better have charged that the dinner represented interference by the United States in the internal political affairs of Mexico, and conspiracy with the PAN against the PRI. The only accurate description of these charges is that they are scurrilous. They are false.” But the controversy followed him for the rest of his tenure.

As he was preparing to leave Mexico City after five years as ambassador, Gavin hosted a dinner attended by many of the country’s top political leaders. According to a frequently repeated story, Gavin made a graceful speech summing up his tenure. An awkward silence followed. None of the Mexican officials in attendance seemed ready to make the reply speech demanded by diplomatic protocol. Still more silence. Finally, Cantinflas, the comedian best known to Americans as Passepartout in the film “Around the World in 80 Days” and the man who Mexican wags had once suggested should be named ambassador to the United States in symmetry with Gavin’s appointment, rose. He delivered a few gracious remarks, but the implication was clear: To the Mexicans, Gavin was still little more than an actor.

Jorge G. Castaneda, a Mexican political scientist who is now a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that Gavin never even tried to win the esteem of Mexican government officials, PRI leaders or the press. “Gavin was abrasive,” Castaneda says. “In spite of his intelligence and in spite of his understanding of Mexico, he rubbed Mexicans the wrong way, particularly government officials.”

Castaneda agrees that Gavin, by publicly responding to criticism of the United States, may have muted the complaints of some Mexican political leaders. But he says that did nothing to ease differences between the countries. “I think Gavin had a tendency to mistake rhetoric for substance,” he says.

As bad as Gavin’s relations often were with government and PRI officials, his feuds with the Mexican press were even worse. One former aide says Gavin’s opinion of all journalists--American as well as Mexican--was formed by the Hollywood gossip columnists he met during his movie career.

A small English-language newspaper, the Mexico City News, stopped writing its own editorials late last year because of Gavin’s repeated complaints about editorials critical of him and of U.S. policy. The newspaper decided to reprint editorials from other papers to avoid Gavin’s barbs. But Mexico’s larger and more influential Spanish-language press continued to attack Gavin until he announced his resignation April 7.

But Gavin’s often combative style went down well in Washington. “The Mexicans don’t like to hear the truth, and he did tell the truth,” says Joseph John Jova, ambassador to Mexico from 1974 to 1977 and now president of Meridian House International, a nonprofit educational and cultural organization in Washington. “I think that you have to admire his courage. It will make the job of his successor easier.”

Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) credits Gavin for refusing “to allow baseless charges and pejorative comments to go unanswered. He insisted that the record be set straight. A guy who does that is going to make enemies. You have to love him for his enemies.”

And Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) says: “I think Jack Gavin brought a new frankness to America’s relationship with Mexico. Too often in the past we have dealt with Mexico from a condescending position where we look the other way at corruption and inefficiency and deal in vague diplomatic platitudes. Gavin was one of the few ambassadors who did not get clientitis. He never forgot that he was in Mexico to represent the United States, not to represent Mexico to Washington.”

Gavin’s supporters on Capitol Hill and in the Administration credit him with having kept pressure on the Mexican government to solve the torture-murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena. Although the murder was still unsolved when Gavin left his post, the ambassador kept pushing the killing to the top of the U.S.-Mexico agenda, emphasizing to Mexican officials that Washington would not allow it to be swept under the rug.

According to one source, Mexican officials hinted that Gavin should lay off because Camarena was “just a cop.” Gavin is said to have become furious and told them that Camarena was an American citizen and a member of his embassy staff. The murder, he said, was an insult to the United States as well as a serious crime.

Since leaving Mexico City, Gavin has been reluctant to talk publicly about his experience as ambassador. Gavin at first agreed to be interviewed for this article but later said he would answer questions only if he was assured that no other source for this story would be quoted without being identified by name. The Times declined to be bound by such conditions.

William Wilson did consent to be interviewed, inviting a reporter and a photographer into his palatial home in Bel- Air. A handsome man with wavy steel-gray hair, Wilson looks a decade younger than his years, a happy characteristic he shares with his friend Ronald Reagan. When his interviewers arrived early, he asked them to remain outside on the doorstep while he completed an earlier appointment. But when he showed them in, right on schedule, Wilson displayed the easy cordiality of a person confident of his position.

He responded carefully and diplomatically to questions about the operation of the Vatican embassy and his role in shaping U.S. relations with the temporal government of the Roman Catholic Church. But he declined to talk about his relations with Kadafi or any other controversy during his tenure.

“That will be the subject of a book,” he said, smiling. Alfred Balitzer, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College who is helping Wilson write his memoirs, smiled and nodded in approval.

Balitzer, as if playing the role of papal aide, sat in on the entire hourlong interview, reinforcing Wilson’s determination not to reveal anything that he thought should be saved for the still untitled book and occasionally suggesting topics that the former ambassador was ready to discuss.

The Kadafi episode? Wait for the book. Wilson’s relationship with Marc Rich, the former commodities trader who fled to Switzerland to escape prosecution on charges of racketeering, fraud and tax evasion? Wait for the book. Wilson’s efforts on behalf of U.S.-born Archbishop Paul C. Marcinkus, chief of the Vatican bank that became embroiled in Italy’s biggest bank scandal, the 1982 collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano? Again, the book.

The first word of Wilson’s meeting with Kadafi came from the Libyan leader himself. On Jan. 5, shortly after the Christmas-week massacre of 20 people at the Rome and Vienna airports for which the Reagan Administration holds Kadafi responsible, the Libyan leader gave a bizarre interview to a group of reporters in Libya, including a crew that filmed it for the U.S. television show “Meet the Press.” Dressed in a green designer jump suit and perched atop a tractor in the middle of a partly plowed field, the Libyan leader said he had met “during the last few days” with a U.S. envoy whose name he could not remember but who was “maybe the ambassador in the Vatican.”

At the time, the United States was trying to persuade its allies to isolate Libya diplomatically and apply severe economic sanctions against the Tripoli government in reprisal for the airport killings carried out by members of the Libyan-backed Abu Nidal faction of renegade Palestinians. Kadafi’s comments pointed to an astonishing breach of U.S. policy. But they were not taken very seriously after the Administration denied that any U.S. official had conferred with the Libyan leader.

In March, however, Administration officials confirmed the substance of Kadafi’s statement and named Wilson as the intermediary, although they emphasized that the contact was not authorized. At that time the officials said that the meeting came shortly after the Rome and Vienna airport incidents.

In a statement issued in June by the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in the Vatican, Wilson said the meeting took place in November, 1985, before the airport attacks. The statement said Wilson made “one and one only trip to Libya.”

But the November visit was not Wilson’s only meeting with Libyan officials. Although he tried to keep the matter secret, even from the U.S. government, the State Department learned in 1982 that Wilson had met a top Libyan official--although not Kadafi--at a site outside of Libya. According to sources thoroughly familiar with the case, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, when he was the State Department’s third-ranking official, sent Wilson a cable directing him to break off all contact with Libyan officials. Later, Eagleburger delivered the same message during a face-to-face meeting with Wilson. One source says similar warnings were issued “many times.”

Wilson told Eagleburger that his objective had been to seek a way to improve relations between Washington and Tripoli, the sources say. Eagleburger replied that the U.S. government does not want to improve its relations with Libya. He told the ambassador to the Vatican to stop meddling in matters that did not concern him.

Wilson was undeterred. He did not sever his contacts with Tripoli, and the sources say he met several more times with Libyan leaders.

Just what Wilson hoped to gain from his association with Libya isn’t clear. State Department officials concluded that Wilson had private business objectives, although they do not know what they were. There has been speculation that Wilson was engaged in some facet of the oil business with Libya, a major producer of premium low-sulfur crude.

But Wilson blandly insists that he has no interests in the oil trade. “Many years ago, I was in the business of manufacturing oil-drilling equipment,” he says, “but I’m not in the oil business. I don’t own or operate producing wells or sell oil products.”

What about his membership on the board of directors of Pennzoil? “I also am on the University of California Board of Regents,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I’m an educator.”

It is easier to speculate about Kadafi’s motive. The Libyan leader has sought for years to establish a back-channel relationship with the U.S. President. During the Carter Administration, Libya made a pitch to Billy Carter, who was invited to Tripoli and who later escorted a Libyan delegation on a “good-will” visit to the United States in early 1979. But Billy Carter’s crude approach--including a much repeated observation that “there’s a hell of a lot more Arabians than there is Jews”--eventually eroded his usefulness to the Libyans.

Wilson enjoyed White House connections almost as good as Billy Carter’s. He often stayed at the White House when he visited Washington, and he enjoyed an easy familiarity with the Reagan family. And, compared to President Carter’s brother, he was a lot more discreet.

Government officials still don’t have a good explanation for Wilson’s association with Marc Rich, a one-time boy-wonder financier who is accused of bilking investors out of billions of dollars through a series of scams, most of them involving the oil trade. His firm, Marc Rich & Co., pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges in 1984 and paid $200 million in back taxes and fines, reportedly the largest tax-evasion settlement ever made.

Less mysterious, at least to State Department officials, is how Wilson went ahead with the contacts in the face of explicit orders not to. When the State Department discovered that Wilson had been asking questions about the Rich case, Eagleburger cabled him in Rome: “Our legal advisers and the Justice Department are all extremely nervous about any involvement at all on your part in this case.”

Yet, in December, 1983, one source says, the department learned that Wilson was planning to meet a Swiss official involved in the Rich case during an upcoming visit to Geneva. Don’t do it, he was told. Do it? Wilson replied. I don’t even know the man.

Sure enough, Wilson turned up in a Geneva restaurant and was seen having lunch with the Swiss official. His furious State Department superiors demanded an explanation. Wilson told them that he had been lunching alone, when into the restaurant came an acquaintance accompanied by this Swiss official. It simply would have been rude, the ambassador protested, not to chat.

In the Marcinkus affair, Wilson wrote a letter in 1982 on the archbishop’s behalf to then-Atty. Gen. William French Smith, a longtime friend of both Wilson and Reagan. Kenneth W. Starr, then counselor to the attorney general and now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, advised Wilson that his letter to Smith was “inappropriate.” Nevertheless, Wilson invited both Smith and Marcinkus to a breakfast at his Rome villa later in 1982, while Smith was on a European trip. Starr, who had accompanied Smith to Europe, was furious. Smith never commented in public on the incident.

Outside of these problem areas, Wilson received high marks for his handling of relations with the Vatican, although one former official says, “It is not the most difficult job in the world.”

Wilson says his task was to “keep the Vatican informed about what our plans are in Central America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” He says Reagan’s policies generally “pull in the same direction” as the objectives of the Pope, but it is useful to “eliminate the element of surprise.”

In the days before Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos fell from power, Wilson notes, the Vatican post provided a channel for exchanging information with Philippine Cardinal Jaime Sin. Sin and the Catholic Church provided much of the punch behind President Corazon Aquino’s “people power” coup.

The Vatican post may be on its way to becoming another preserve of the non-careerist. Reagan last month selected Frank Shakespeare, a veteran broadcast executive and adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, as Wilson’s successor. Gavin’s post remains vacant.

Whatever the lessons learned from Wilson’s tenure in Rome and whatever the benefits reaped from the harder line taken by Gavin in Mexico City, Reagan’s experience with friends as ambassadors is not likely to deter either him or future presidents from appointing non-career envoys. Diplomatic experts and career envoys agree that the tradition is probably too ingrained, too much a part of the process of awarding political spoils, to be abolished or even substantially altered anytime soon.

Moreover, as Wilson’s case shows, there is no such thing as a sure bet--even in relatively low-profile posts like the Vatican--when it comes to making appointments from among a President’s political cronies. Gavin’s tenure offers evidence that, even with a bad start, a chief executive’s friends can be an effective extension of his political power in foreign capitals.

Even if non-career diplomats--and career ones as well--occasionally prove to be embarrassments, none seems to have caused a disaster big enough to force a change. In a world in which one big diplomatic blunder can spell doom for a nation, the United States has always muddled through. As Clare Boothe Luce, herself a politically appointed ambassador to Italy in the Eisenhower Administration, put it 30 years ago: “Whatever else diplomacy is, or is not, it is a pragmatic art. . . . In its years of diplomatic life, America has not yet made the irrevocable diplomatic error.”