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President Barack Obama has continued the bipartisan tradition of rewarding heavy campaign contributors with ambassadorships, despite repeated promises to reduce the influence of money in politics. And to his misfortune, the senator chairing the subcommittee that confirms these unworthies is none other than Connecticut's own Sen. Chris Murphy.
The going price for ambassador to a nice place like Norway or the Netherlands is around $500,000 and increases to $1.2 million for the United Kingdom. It can be the donor's own money or funds he collected or "bundled" from others, the president doesn't differentiate.
Thirty-seven percent of Obama's ambassadors have been political appointees, putting him ahead of his immediate predecessors, George W. Bush (30 percent) and Bill Clinton (28 percent), and just behind Ronald Reagan's 38 percent. "They all have done it" becomes a handy alibi.
It is not surprising that some of Obama's appointees have been less than impressive in their appearances before Murphy's subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee. That's also a tradition.
Noah Mamet, who raised more than $500,000 for the Obama campaign, couldn't answer a question about Argentina's policy on intellectual property rights, a subject of concern to the United States. "Let me get back to you on that," said the unprepared appointee. The Buenos Aires Herald wrote sadly of Mamet's "ignorance" of Argentina.
Committee members were rather annoyed too when the nominee for ambassador to Norway, Long island hotel chain owner George Tsunis, another $500,0000 bundler, didn't know Norway had a king and described one of the country's ruling parties as a fringe group.
The most enthusiastic pursuer of the presidential appointees has been Sen. John McCain, who was, of course, defeated by the dazzling Obama promises of 2008.
At a confirmation hearing for one Colleen Bell, a producer of popular soap operas like "The Bold and the Beautiful," McCain asked Bell what our strategic interests in Hungary are. Bell, who got Hungary for $800,000, indicated by her reply that she had little idea what the term, "strategic interests," might mean:
"Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect security for both countries and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years."
"Great answer," said McCain, "dripping scorn," according to The Washington Post.
A couple of weeks later, Murphy and McCain were part of a congressional delegation visiting Budapest. At a press conference with the Hungarian media and three American reporters, including Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist for Bloomberg News, a Hungarian reporter asked McCain about Bell.
"A devilish smile played across McCain's face," wrote Goldberg, as McCain referred the questioner to Murphy, whom he described as the "very knowledgeable chairman of the committee that holds hearings on these nominees."
"Three things then happened," Goldberg continued. "First, most everyone at the press conference laughed. Second, one of the people who didn't laugh, the aforementioned Senator Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, approached the podium as if it were covered in rat poison. Third, McCain winked-not at all subtly-at the three American journalists sitting in the front row."
Murphy did his best, noting, "Ms. Bell has had an extensive history of involvement with a number of very important causes in the United States. She has visited Budapest and Hungary and I think she is going to be a very strong ambassador and we look forward to coming back and working with her in the very near future."
"By this standard," Goldberg wrote of Murphy's assessment of Ambassador Bell, "I should be in the running for ambassador to Hungary, as should Rod Blagojevich, Woody Allen and either Olsen twin."
I remember President Clinton being criticized when he rewarded donors by inviting them to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Selling a sleepover in Lincoln's bed was tacky, but at least the purchaser went home in the morning. When you sell an ambassadorship, the purchaser moves to the country he's bought and stays a while, which is not always a good thing.