• U.S.

Picking Lemons for the Plums?

5 minute read
Richard Lacayo

One of the choicest plums in Government is a diplomatic posting in an agreeable locale. And what a pleasant task it is for a new President to reward old friends and fat-cat party contributors by handing out such assignments. Judging from the appointments he made during his first six months in the White House, George Bush must be finding that task very pleasant indeed. A study by Government Executive magazine, a journal serving public officials, found that of Bush’s first 37 ambassadorial nominations, 70% have been political appointees rather than career Foreign Service officers. That compares with 59% for Ronald Reagan at the same point in his first term and 42% for Jimmy Carter.

Federal law requires that ambassadors “should possess clearly demonstrated competence,” including knowledge of the language, history and culture of the country where they will serve. Several of Bush’s diplomatic picks appear to know next to nothing about the countries to which they are being sent. What they have shown is a deep loyalty to Republican Party causes and, in many cases, the wherewithal to prove that loyalty with cash. Among them:

— Joy Silverman, Ambassador-designate to Barbados and seven other Caribbean islands, has no college degree and no job history. In the statement of qualifications she submitted to the Senate, she cited her experience “planning and hosting corporate functions” for her husband, a New York City industrialist. In 1987-88 she donated more than $180,000 to Republican candidates.

— Former Nevada Senator Chic Hecht, 60, who has been nominated as Ambassador to the Bahamas, was more noted for his malapropisms than for any legislative accomplishment during his single term on Capitol Hill. Hecht once declared that he opposed a “nuclear-waste suppository” in his state. In his list of qualifications, he noted that the “life-style of the Bahamas is similar to the life-style of Las Vegas, Nev.”

— Peter Secchia, 52, a former Republican national committeeman from Michigan, was narrowly confirmed last month as Ambassador to Italy despite press reports alleging frequent profanity and crude behavior toward women. Before arriving in Rome, he endeared himself to his future hosts by joking that the new Italian navy boasts glass-bottom boats “so they can see the old Italian navy.”

— Florida real estate developer Melvin Sembler, 59, has been nominated as envoy to Australia, and his sometime partner Joseph Zappala, 56, is proposed for Spain. Both are members of Team 100, a roster of G.O.P. contributors who gave more than $100,000 to party causes in the past year. On his qualifications form, under the heading “Languages Spoken,” Sembler listed “English (fluent).”

In many foreign capitals, official reaction to Bush’s new ambassadors is diplomatically neutral. But privately, there is plenty of hand wringing and even some scorn. Secchia, says a senior Italian official, is “a very nice man, but he doesn’t know anything.” The Bahamas, says a source close to the government, tried to dissuade the U.S. from naming Hecht as Ambassador, but now that he has been selected “there ain’t nothing much you can do, just grin and bear it.” And although Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke went out of his way to praise nominee Sembler, his choice of words was less than stirring. Sembler “has taken great pains in recent weeks,” said Hawke, “to acquaint himself with Australia.”

Sensing political advantage, Senate Democrats are holding up the confirmations of several Bush nominees. Republicans argue that the Democratic objections are hypocritical. “Every four years the out party says the ambassadors aren’t qualified,” comments a Bush foreign policy aide. During confirmation hearings last week on the nomination of Joseph Gildenhorn as Ambassador to Switzerland, Minnesota Republican Rudy Boschwitz huffed that being rich enough to make hefty political contributions should not disqualify a candidate but should be regarded as “a sign of considerable achievement.” By that standard, Gildenhorn is well suited for an embassy job. Though the American Academy of Diplomacy, a group of former diplomats, has rated him unqualified, the Washington real estate developer and his family have coughed up $230,000 for G.O.P. campaigns since 1984.

Many Senators are openly predicting the defeat of at least one nominee: Frederick Bush, Ambassador-designate to Luxembourg. No relation to the President, Bush served as the Vice President’s deputy chief of staff in the Reagan Administration. He has been accused of using his connections to garner some $600,000 in HUD-related consulting fees. In an appearance last month before a House subcommittee, Bush recanted earlier sworn testimony in which he claimed that he barely knew the former HUD officials suspected of handing out federal housing contracts to well-connected Republicans. “I would guess it might be a while before he goes to Luxembourg,” says Senate G.O.P. leader Robert Dole. “And then it might be just as a visitor.” It may be that other Bush appointees will have to do their traveling as regular tourists too.

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