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Undiplomatic Question: Are Bush's Rich New Ambassadors Too Hick to Hack It?

updated 01/29/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/29/1990 01:00AM

To the victors go the spoils—and nowhere more so than in politics. Presidents have traditionally rewarded their most ardent, and affluent, supporters with that sweetest of political plums, an ambassadorial posting. Yet even cynical Washington insiders have been surprised that nearly half of President Bush's 107 diplomatic appointments so far have gone to Republican loyalists and fundraisers with little or no foreign service experience. (Typically, Bush's White House predecessors put their backers in just one-third of the postings.) The inflated roster of somewhat dubious diplomats has infuriated career professionals at the State Department and caused much grousing on Capitol Hill. Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes, a usually soft-spoken Democrat, declared: "It is one thing on occasion to have to sort of hold your nose and let a nomination move through, but to be called on again and again and again to engage in this practice, seems to me that someone ought to say stop." The White House promises that the 38 nominees it will announce beginning next month will all be career diplomats. That will still leave a slate of second-career envoys. Here's a look at seven who have undistinguished themselves.

At the Court of St. James's, the Texas roots are showing

Name: Henry Catto Jr.

Post: Ambassador to Great Britain

Job Qualification: Longtime friend of the President

Biggest Gaffe: Although a seasoned government service man who has been White House Chief of Protocol, Assistant Secretary of Defense and Ambassador to El Salvador, Catto persists in boobish behavior. He flies the Texas State flag at Winfield House, his official London residence, and placed a wooden Hereford cow and cutesy bale of hay on the lawn.

A Park Avenue socialite seeks a sunny Caribbean posting

Name: Joy Silverman

Post: Nominated—but not yet confirmed—to be Ambassador to Barbados and several other Caribbean nations

Job Qualification: She and her industrialist husband each contributed more than $100,000 to the 1988 Bush campaign.

Background: Park Avenue socialite with no college degree and virtually no work history, she listed her employment experience as "assisted husband in connection with growth by planning and hosting corporate functions." (Translation: She threw dinner parties.)

A bumbling former Senator tees off in the lush Bahamas

Name: Chic Hecht

Post: Ambassador to the Bahamas

Job Qualification: Friend of Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole

Background: Former Republican Senator from Nevada, defeated in 1988 after a single term. Given to malapropisms, including a promise to oppose a Nevada "nuclear-waste suppository." Biggest Gaffe: Asked to list his qualifications, he said that the life-style of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas is similar to the life-style of Las Vegas, Nevada. "I am sure I will feel at home in the Bahamas. I understand it's a nice life-style. I love golf, and they have a lot of nice golf courses and good fishing."

Once peas in a pod, two pals split to Australia and Spain

Names: Melvin Sembler and Joseph Zappala, also known as the St. Petersburg Twins

Posts: Ambassador to Australia and Ambassador to Spain

Job Qualifications: Big Bush backers, they contributed $127,000 and $126,000, respectively, to the GOP in 1988.

Background: Derived their nicknames from their startlingly similar resumes and experiences. Friends and real estate developers whose St. Petersburg offices are a few blocks apart, they co-founded Straight, Inc., a drug-rehab chain that in 1989 was accused by Florida officials of improperly restraining patients. Straight, Inc. has since passed muster with inspectors.

Biggest Gaffes: Asked about his qualifications, Sembler wrote: "I have been known as a coalition builder, able to organize my colleagues and peers to action in support of worthy civic, charitable and political causes." Zappala's answer was virtually identical.

In Rome an erstwhile loudmouth becomes the U.S. voice

Name: Peter Secchia

Post: Ambassador to Italy

Job Qualification: Longtime Republican national committeeman for Michigan

Background: Building-supply magnate

Biggest Gaffes: Told reporter in 1987 that he was looking for a "big-titted" woman at a GOP gathering. Later boasted, "I'm so proud of my f—-ing candidate, I could s—-." Before arriving in Rome, delivered the old, tired joke: "I saw the new Italian Navy. Its boats have glass bottoms so they can see the old Italian Navy."

Redeeming Qualities: Peacemaking gestures such as learning their language and inviting his barber to lunch have won over the forgiving Italians, who now call him Cugino Pete—Cousin Pete.

A Seattle businesswoman learns what's in a name

Name: Delia Newman

Post Ambassador to New Zealand

Job Qualifications: Chaired Bush's Washington State campaigns in 1980 and 1988

Background: Prominent Seattle businesswoman and real estate broker

Biggest Gaffe: When a reporter asked Newman who was Prime Minister of New Zealand, she couldn't say. She later insisted that she knew all along but didn't answer because she was unsure of the correct pronunciation of then Prime Minister David Lange's last name. Also told a reporter she had no strong interest in foreign affairs.

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