The Oval: The Price of an Ambassadorship

For the first half of this year, the Bush administration seemed on track to patch up its dismal relations with its European allies. President George W. Bush has toured Europe three times this year (four if you include the pope's funeral) and even spoken sweet words to one of the arch critics of the war in Iraq German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder--first in Germany and then in Washington last month.

But photo ops are cheap compared to the price of an ambassadorship, and nothing speaks quite so loudly about the Bush administration's priorities as its senior embassy postings. Germany's new ambassador has no obvious qualifications or abilities to repair the deeply strained relationship with one of America's most important allies for the last 50 years. However William Timken Jr., an Ohio industrialist, does have one big claim to the job: he raised at least $200,000 for the president's re-election campaign in 2004--ranking him among the elite class of fund-raisers known as the Bush Rangers. In January, the Timken Co., where Timken is chairman of the company's board of directors, contributed $250,000 to fund Bush's Inauguration festivities.

A White House spokesman says Bush tapped Timken for the Berlin post because he's an "experienced executive." Yet Timken has no diplomatic background, and, according to his spokeswoman, does not speak German. While Timken does claim ancestral ties to Germany, he appears even less qualified for the job than his predecessor, former GOP senator Dan Coats, who was hardly celebrated in Berlin. Stationed in the German capital at the height of debate over whether to invade Iraq, Coats also didn't speak German and was widely criticized for his lack of knowledge about the country--two factors said to have contributed to the rift between the United States and Germany over the war. In contrast, Coats's predecessor was John Kornblum, a popular and vastly experienced career diplomat appointed by President Bill Clinton who is credited (at least in part) with having written President Ronald Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall" speech.

Even for those not closely monitoring Bush's campaign finances, Timken might be a familiar name. In April 2003, Bush visited one of Timken's research facilities in Ohio, where he delivered a speech about the improving economy and argued that more tax cuts were needed to sustain growth. Standing in front of a backdrop that read JOBS AND GROWTH, Bush said more tax cuts would mean "companies like Timken have got a better capacity to expand, which means jobs." A month later, Congress approved--and Bush signed into law--those additional tax cuts. Yet, in May 2004, in the heat of the presidential election year, Timken announced it would close three of its Canton-area facilities, affecting 1,300 jobs. Democrats immediately seized on the Timken layoffs, noting the irony of Bush's earlier speech. On Election Day, Bush felt the backlash, narrowly losing Stark County (where the facilities were located) by about 3,000 votes. (Timken and its labor unions continue to negotiate over the fate of employees at the plants.)

Timken is the eighth $100,000-plus Bush fund-raiser to be nominated for an ambassadorship since January. On Wednesday, the White House nominated Al Hoffman, a Florida developer who has raised $300,000 for Bush's presidential campaigns, to be ambassador to Portugal. Last month, Bush appointed Robert Tuttle, a California car dealer, to be ambassador to the United Kingdom, while Ronald Spogli, a California financer who was Bush's classmate at Harvard Business School, was named the top diplomat in Rome. Both men were Bush Pioneers in 2004--having raised at least $100,000 for the campaign. In April, the White House named David Wilkins, a South Carolina state representative who raised $200,000 for the 2004 campaign, as the ambassador to Canada. That appointment raised concerns north of the border when Wilkins admitted that he'd only visited Canada once--more than 30 years ago on a trip to Niagara Falls--and that he didn't speak French (Canada is officially a bilingual country).

All told, more than 30 of Bush's top fund-raisers in 2000 and 2004 have scored ambassadorships. About one third of Bush's ambassadors have been political appointees--a statistic on par with that of other administrations. Doling out plum ambassadorships to big supporters may not be anything new, but against the backdrop of the ongoing threat of terrorism and the continued strains of Iraq, the stakes faced by this White House are entirely different.

It's not just a question of embassies. The Bush administration has engaged in unusual ties with opposition leaders in at least two European nations. The president has yet to engage in a private meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq shortly after his election last year. But Bush did meet last week with his conservative opponent, Mariano Rajoy, as part of a wider group of conservative leaders known as the International Democrat Union. White House aides say Zapatero remains blacklisted not least because he is close to Venezuela's anti-American leader, Hugo Chavez. Still, Rajoy's invitation to a White House session with Bush underscored that stark message to the Madrid government. Well before Germany's chancellor visited the White House this year, his conservative opponent, Angela Merkel, met with Vice President Dick Cheney and Steve Hadley, the president's national-security adviser.

Last week, longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes appeared before the Senate to lay out her ideas for rebuilding America's reputation abroad. Bush nominated Hughes last spring to head up the State Department's efforts to counter anti-Americanism overseas. During the hearing, Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Hughes that the U.S.'s public diplomacy was "dysfunctional and requires major reform." Hughes agreed, admitting that reversing anti-American sentiment abroad would be a "massive undertaking" and could span generations. "Perceptions do not change quickly or easily," she said. She might want to start by suggesting a change of approach at the White House.

A Supreme Sales Pitch

There's only one problem with last week's supremely successful rollout of John Roberts as Supreme Court nominee. It was all too smooth. According to White House officials, Roberts impressed President Bush with his modesty, his Midwestern charm and his incremental approach to shifting the nation's legal landscape. One senior Bush aide pointed to Roberts's performance in his interview with the president in the White House residence, saying Bush was especially impressed with his "Midwestern humility." Another aide described Roberts's judicial philosophy as being a "humble" approach to the powers of the judiciary and insisted that Roberts was a mainstream conservative who could avoid Democratic attacks.

So how can anyone square the humble Judge John Roberts with the slash-and-burn administration official also known as John Roberts? According to his Reagan-era papers from the Justice Department, Roberts consistently argued in less-than-humble terms against Ted Olson, who was then assistant attorney general. Roberts's injudicious scrawlings (one accuses Olson of wimpishly kowtowing to liberals) relate to GOP bills in Congress that would have stripped the federal courts of their powers over such hot-button issues as abortion and school busing.

That makes it all the more important to reinforce the original sales pitch for Roberts across Washington, even in parts of Congress that have no formal role in his confirmation. Even before Roberts was named as Bush's nominee to succeed Sandra Day O'Connor, the administration had recruited six House Republicans to oversee a pro-nominee campaign among House Republicans. Among those recruited: Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of leading House conservatives, and Rep. Deborah Price, chair of the House Republican Conference. The goal is to create an "echo chamber" of support for Roberts, in hopes of countering the nominee's critics, a senior House Republican official tells NEWSWEEK.

With Congress in recess next month, House Republicans have been instructed to "fan out" on TV and radio and to speak out on Roberts during town-hall meetings with constituents. Among those briefing the congressional GOP on their Supreme Court talking points: Cheney, who met with the House Republican caucus in what was billed as a "theme meeting" on the court and other issues last Thursday night. On Wednesday morning, President Bush made a rare appearance on the Hill to lobby House Republicans on the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, but he also told the lawmakers that it was important to maintain GOP unity on other issues, including the court, according to the House GOP aide. Meanwhile, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who is overseeing the administration's Supreme Court efforts from an office in the West Wing, has been coordinating strategy with House Republicans in person and over conference calls organized by the White House legislative-affairs staff.

For a White House often criticized for its poor congressional relations, the outreach is unusual. "The administration isn't leaving anything to risk," the House aide says.