Capital Gains : It's business as usual at the White House. In the Bush Administration, several generous Friends of George and the GOP became envoys. Now, several Friends of Bill and the Democrats--some who have no experience in the foreign-service arena--are getting appointed to very plum posts.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking for a spring break far away from Washington's cold March rains and the incessant drip of Whitewater, President Clinton picked the seaside California home of M. Larry Lawrence.

A convenient vacancy had just freed up the 35-room mansion in the affluent community of Coronado, as Clinton well knew.

Only a week earlier, Lawrence, owner of the Hotel del Coronado and a major contributor to and fund-raiser for the Democratic Party, had moved to Switzerland to take up his new job as head of the U.S. Embassy there.

After 12 years of complaining about Republican appointments, it's the Democrats' turn to pass out high posts in pleasant places to contributors, friends of the First Family and others who provided timely support during the Clinton campaign.

"The spoils system is alive and well," a senior foreign service officer complained. "The only difference between this Administration and the last is that the appointments are a bit less unqualified."

Of 86 Clinton nominees confirmed in senior diplomatic posts as of March, more than 40% have come from outside the career foreign service, State Department figures show.

Many choices have been praised, including that of former presidential candidate and vice president Walter F. Mondale. During his brief tenure as ambassador to Japan, he has helped resolve a nagging trade dispute over cellular phones and soothed worries over gun violence that has claimed the lives of several Japanese students in the United States.

The Washington Establishment also reacted favorably to the announcement March 22 that the diplomatic plum of plums--ambassadorship to Britain--would go to retired Adm. William J. Crowe. Backing by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff helped candidate Clinton fend off attacks on his lack of military service.

"It's a splendid choice. Crowe will make a real contribution," said F. Allen (Tex) Harris, president of the American Foreign Service Assn.

Although every job given to a non-career ambassador takes one away from his membership, he said, "Our primary concern is not so much the ratio of career to political appointees as the ratio of qualified to unqualified appointees."

In the latter category, Harris put Lawrence, whose nomination--alone among Clinton choices--was opposed by every major foreign-service organization.

Critics say the San Diego hotel magnate, who with his family and business gave nearly $200,000 to the Democratic Party from 1987 to 1992, has no foreign-policy experience.

During his confirmation hearings, he committed several gaffes, such as calling Switzerland a U.S. ally even though the small European country is practically a synonym for neutrality.

"I'm afraid it's just not a good appointment," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which, despite its Democratic majority, failed to approve the nomination.

Lawrence passed the full Senate, however, after what foreign-service sources said was extraordinary arm-twisting by Republican as well as Democratic power brokers.

"Four years ago when we objected strongly to a number of Bush nominees and it looked like some might lose, pressure was applied by the Democrats," a retired foreign-service officer recalled. "The Democrats said, 'We have our own fat cats so we can't afford to vote against these guys because the wheel is going to turn some day.' Four years later, history pretty much repeated itself."

Reached in Switzerland by telephone, Lawrence said he had been unfairly targeted and was qualified for his job by virtue of his background in international banking, finance and development.

"Most people identify me with the Hotel del Coronado, but that only represents 20% of my business," he said. "I've had 56 companies doing business around the world, I've negotiated in Mexico and represented Congress in loan negotiations with Israel. I've been chairman of an economic advisory board in California and done many things in government."

Lawrence also said he had raised "millions upon millions of dollars" for the Democrats. He said he had been working for the party "since I was walking precincts with my mother in Chicago" and noted that he had been offered ambassadorships by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson but turned them down.

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Where Clinton's immediate predecessor, President Bush, nominated 11 campaign contributors of $100,000 or more to senior diplomatic posts, Clinton has so far named five.

Besides Lawrence, they are: Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt, an oil heiress who with her family gave more than $300,000 to the Democrats, according to the Federal Election Commission; Ambassador to the Netherlands K. Terry Dornbush, an Atlanta investor and contributor of $250,000; Ambassador to Denmark Edward Elson, who gave $180,000; and Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman, the doyenne of Democratic fund-raisers, who gave $130,000 and raised millions more.

Other bankrollers awarded ambassadorships are Alan Blinken, who gave nearly $50,000, Belgium; and Thomas Siebert, nearly $30,000, Sweden.

Lugar, one of the Senate's most respected foreign-affairs experts, also voted against Dornbush; Siebert, a well-connected Washington lawyer; and Sidney Williams, a Hollywood Mercedes-Benz dealer who is married to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and got the Bahamas.

"It appeared to me there were no conspicuous qualifications of any of the four for the countries for which they were nominated," Lugar said in an interview.

He also expressed reservations about the still-unconfirmed choice of Derek Shearer, a professor at Occidental College and brother-in-law of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, as ambassador to Finland.

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Doling out ambassadorships this way is a tradition nearly as old as the Republic.

At first, politicians of the highest order--Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson among them--were sent abroad to represent U.S. interests.

But "beginning with Andrew Jackson, continuing through Ulysses S. Grant and even Woodrow Wilson, chiefs of U.S. missions were chosen largely from the ranks of the president's friends and supporters," wrote former Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. in an article reprinted in the book "The Modern Ambassador."

Ambassadorial caliber improved after the creation of a career foreign service in 1924. The ratio of career to non-career appointees has steadily increased, from about 50-50 between the two World Wars to 70-30 in most recent Administrations.

But for every distinguished non-career ambassador, such as W. Averell Harriman, late husband of the new ambassador to France, there have also been "ticking time bombs," in the words of Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md).

One that exploded was Vincent de Roulet.

An article by George Crile reprinted in "The Modern Ambassador' says that de Roulet, named ambassador to Jamaica after contributing $75,000 to Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign, got off to a less than rousing start when he referred to Jamaicans as "children," denigrated the island as a tourist destination and jeopardized its other key industry, bauxite, by delaying approval of U.S. loan guarantees.

When de Roulet claimed before Congress to have gotten a promise from then-Prime Minister Michael Manley not to nationalize U.S. bauxite interests, Manley declared the ambassador "persona non grata." This after the American, hoping for a posher post in Europe, had already promised Nixon's lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, $400,000 for the 1972 campaign.

Kalmbach pleaded guilty in 1974 to trying to "sell" a European embassy to another U.S. ambassador in the Caribbean for $100,000.

The Ronald Reagan Administration brought other embarrassments.

Oilman William A. Wilson was forced to resign as envoy to the Vatican after it was revealed that he met secretly in 1985 with Moammar Kadafi, the Libyan leader whose country and compound U.S. forces later bombed.

Another friend of Ron, Sam H. Zakhem, a Colorado politician named ambassador to Bahrain, made headlines during the 1987-88 Persian Gulf crisis, when the U.S. Navy provided escorts for Kuwaiti oil tankers.

After U.S. forces sank an Iranian gunboat, Zakhem suggested to reporters that the Navy hold captured Iranian sailors hostage.

Back home, he was indicted for promoting the Kuwaiti cause in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War without registering as a foreign agent.

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According to a senior Senate staffer, the "high water mark" for money-based ambassadorial appointments came under President Bush, himself a non-career ambassador to China and the United Nations.

The Senate, which must confirm nominees, refused to vote on several Bush choices, including Joy A. Silverman, a New York socialite whose family complained about the size of the ambassadorial residence in Barbados.

But some Bush choices denigrated at their nominations turned out well.

An Australian diplomat recalled that when Melvin Sembler arrived in 1989, Australians expected the worst. Long the recipients of non-career ambassadors, they dubbed Edward Clark, a pick of Johnson's, "Mr. Ed" after American television's talking horse.

But Sembler--one of two Florida developers named ambassadors and known together as the "St. Petersburg Twins"--worked hard at the job and wound up being widely liked.

"He was not a fool and he had great charm and style," the diplomat said.

Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, actually prefer political appointees on the theory that they can more swiftly cut through red tape.

"If you want a ship visit, a call from the White House can work wonders," said retired Col. Jim Waggener, who served as defense and air attache in Australia under Californians Robert Nesen, a Cadillac dealer, and publisher Bill Lane. "If you want to organize a performance or a trade fair, a call to Hollywood or Wall Street can work wonders, too.

"It's basically a personality-driven thing. If a sense of trust can be developed between the political appointee and the career people in an embassy, it can work beautifully," Waggener said.

So how will Lawrence fare so far from Coronado?

"Time and again these wealthy people turn out to be perfectly able," the senior Senate staffer said hopefully. "Besides, rich people give nice parties."

From Donors to Diplomats

Pamela Harriman Ambassador to France Contributions: $130,000

Edward Elson Ambassador to Denmark Contributions: $180,000

K. Terry Dornbush Ambassador to Netherlands Contributions: $250,000

M. Larry Lawrence Ambassador to Switzerland Contributions: $200,000

Swanee Hunt Ambassador to Austria Contributions: $300,000

Source: Federal Election Committee

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