Not a politician, but off to a pretty good start. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg
Not a politician, but off to a pretty good start. Photographer: Koji Sasahara/Pool via Bloomberg

The uproar over unqualified campaign donors being appointed to plum ambassadorships is giving a bad name to politicians turned ambassadors.

While some of the Obama picks are, as Republican Senator John McCain says, a travesty, critics of the practice have conflated those selected only because of their campaign largesse with politicians, some of who have been among the best ambassadors.

Japan is an illustration. Few Americans are as revered in that country as the late Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving Senate Democratic leader. In 1977, he was appointed ambassador to Japan by President Jimmy Carter and stayed until 1988, serving eight years under President Ronald Reagan.

Mansfield's successors in Japan included former Senate Republican leader Howard Baker, former Vice President Walter Mondale and Tom Foley, who had been speaker of the House. All got high marks. The U.S. ambassador today is Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the late president, whose appointment was lauded by the Japanese and is already winning praise for her service.

In earlier times, one of the finest American ambassadors was a political pick, W. Averell Harriman, tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as envoy to the Soviet Union during World War II.

Few expect much out of the likes of George Tsunis, President Barack Obama's choice to be ambassador to Norway, or Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" nominated to be ambassador to Hungary. Tsunis almost started a diplomatic incident during his Senate confirmation hearing with disparaging -- and incorrect -- remarks about his host country's governing coalition.

An irony is that Obama pays a lot less attention to the care and feeding of campaign contributors than President Bill Clinton did. Yet he has picked almost 40 percent more non-career foreign-service officers as ambassadors. Clinton was more generous with White House invitations including sleep-overs.

The lesson: political contributors can do more damage in foreign capitals than in the Lincoln bedroom.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.)

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.