High Number of Ambassadorships Go to Bush Friends, Contributors

Times Staff Writer

When President Bush, in his first ambassadorial appointment, selected Thomas R. Pickering, a distinguished career diplomat, to be Washington’s chief representative at the United Nations, he said that the choice symbolized his admiration for the nation’s corps of professional Foreign Service officers.

But, since that appointment, Bush has named a higher percentage of campaign contributors and other political friends to ambassadorial posts than any of the last five presidents had done at similar points in their administrations.

Bush has announced 42 ambassadorial appointments, of which only 14--one-third of the total--have gone to career diplomats. Of the rest, 21 are strictly political, including several persons who had contributed more than $100,000 to Bush’s campaign coffers; the other seven are legally classified as political because they are not members of the nonpartisan Foreign Service, although they are foreign policy professionals who served in previous Republican administrations.

Records of Earlier Presidents


By contrast, according to figures cited in congressional debate by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), the percentage of career diplomats appointed to ambassadorial posts was far higher in the first seven months of every Administration going back to John F. Kennedy--61% by Kennedy, 68% by Lyndon B. Johnson (at the start of his only full term), 57% by Richard M. Nixon, 58% by Jimmy Carter and 61% by Ronald Reagan.

In a telephone interview, Sarbanes said that Bush “is sending us a lot more political people, and the quality of his political people is significantly below the appointees of earlier presidents.”

Concerning the political appointees, Sarbanes said: “It is not true in every instance, but in most of these cases you seem to have to be over the $100,000 mark (in campaign contributions) to make the consideration list.”

With tongue in cheek, he added: “Maybe we should put these things up to public bid and reduce the deficit.”


100 Holdovers Cited

Administration supporters insist that the situation is not nearly as bleak as Sarbanes and some other critics contend. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher--a career Foreign Service officer himself--said it is misleading to concentrate on the 42 new appointments Bush has made while ignoring almost 100 ambassadors--almost all of them career Foreign Service officers--who were appointed by Reagan but were retained in the same post by Bush.

He said that Bush had decided to replace most of Reagan’s political appointees before starting to review the assignments of career diplomats.

“Of 141 ambassadorial positions, presently 51, or 36%, are political appointees, while 90, or 64%, are career appointees,” Boucher said. “It is important to note that, when the process is complete--that is, when all ambassadorial appointments have been filled--we expect the final percentage of appointees to be about two-thirds career people and about one-third political appointees.”


Inherited Bad Situation

George Vest, the nation’s longest serving career diplomat at the time of his retirement earlier this year, said that Bush inherited from Reagan an “appallingly bad” situation in which political ambassadors were often chosen “with no consideration for professionalism.”

Despite the high percentage of political appointees in the early going, Vest said that there are reasons to hope that Bush’s ambassadorial choices eventually will be better than Reagan’s.

“When Bush appointed Pickering, he made a point of the fact that he had a very high opinion of the Foreign Service,” Vest said. “As Bush has named political appointees, he has been very careful not to put a Foreign Service ambassador out of a job. There was no such concern shown in the Reagan time. The percentages as yet don’t show much improvement. The quality is still very political. But there are nuances which show a certain sensitivity.”


Under a Senate rule that permits a single member to block action on appointments temporarily, Sarbanes has put a “hold” on the appointments of Joseph Zappala as ambassador to Spain, Melvin F. Sembler as ambassador to Australia and Della M. Newman as ambassador to New Zealand. All three were judged to be unqualified by the American Academy of Diplomacy. Sarbanes said that he objects to some other appointments as well but selected those three because they seemed to illustrate the flaws in the process.

Contributed $126,000

Zappala, Bush’s finance co-chairman for Florida, contributed $126,000 to the Bush campaign. Sembler, a shopping center developer and president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, contributed $127,000. Newman, Washington state chairman of Bush’s campaign committee, is the wife of a major campaign contributor.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), defending the appointments, said that the nominees have been close political associates of the President for more than 10 years and, under American tradition, could expect some sort of patronage.


“Our system of government . . . implies that presidential candidates build broad coalitions,” Lugar said.

Charles A. Schmitz, vice president of the American Foreign Service Assn., which functions as a sort of labor union for professional diplomats, said that his organization does not object to a reasonable number of political ambassadors.

“We don’t say that making political contributions disqualifies one from being an ambassador, but we would like to see something else, such as an interest in foreign affairs, the ability to speak a foreign language, maybe even the language of the country where he would be assigned,” Schmitz said.

He said that most recent presidents have picked ambassadors who are just as bad as the worst of Bush’s appointments. But he said that it is no longer good enough to say that appointments are no worse than those of the past.


“Unlike most of the years since the end of World War II, we no longer have most of the chips,” Schmitz said. “We have a tremendous stake in what happens in the rest of the world. We need to have serious people. We are finished with the days of hobby diplomacy.”