The checks have grown along with the practice. In 1989, when President George H.W. Bush sent Henry Catto to London, where he flew the Texas flag and installed a four-foot-high wooden Hereford steer on the lawn of Winfield House, you could get a prime post for contributions in the low six figures. Nowadays, according to the Guardian, getting Rome, Paris or Stockholm will cost you a lot more. Appointees to these embassies raised a total of $5 million in 2012, a jump from $1.3 million in 2004 and $800,000 in 2000.
With so many bundlers to reward, there aren’t enough unimportant places to send them. Obama dispatched music executive Nicole Avant to the Bahamas, which must have seemed like a sinecure, except it’s a global financial center as well as a hot spot for drug and human trafficking. She left after a report by the Office of Inspector General found that she was gone from Nassau 276 days and displayed “dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement.”
Another bundler, Cynthia Stroum, sent by Obama to Luxembourg, resigned after a report exposed irregularities, including spending an inordinate amount of time renovating the ambassador’s residence and large purchases of alcohol.
Obama comes in for particular criticism given that he promised to end the practice of appointing ambassadors with no background in foreign policy. The State Department is filled with potential nominees who have graduate degrees in foreign affairs, speak multiple languages, have served abroad and have deep expertise in the politics of various countries. The diplomats of other countries are usually professionals who know a region, its politics, culture and language. Take the Hungarian ambassador to the United States, an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 27 years.
Compare that to Colleen Bell, Obama’s nominee to Budapest. Bell, a producer of the soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful,” was unable to string together cogent replies during her hearing. When asked about the U.S.’s strategic interests in Hungary, she answered, “Well, we have a strategic interest in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary.” To a question about what she would do differently from her predecessor, she replied with platitudes worthy of a Miss America contestant: “If confirmed, I would like to work towards engaging civil society in a deeper — in a deeper … “ The thought trailed off.