WASHINGTON -- On Aug. 3, with Congress on summer break, President Clinton quietly unveiled his latest "recess appointments" not subject to Senate confirmation. They included Bill Lann Lee, continuing his unconfirmed tenure running the Justice Department's civil rights division. Still more audaciously, three Democratic activists and donors were given diplomatic posts for this administration's last six months.
No previous president approached Bill Clinton's contempt toward the constitutional requirement that the Senate "advise and consent" to high officials -- including diplomats. Now he has shattered precedents by creating three unconfirmed ambassadors whose common trait and salient qualification is loyalty to the Democratic Party.
Since 1997, this trio has contributed or raised nearly $900,000 for Democrats. That includes $343,000 to fuel Al Gore's presidential campaign with unrestricted "soft money" (which Gore has pledged to eliminate as president) and $24,000 in direct contributions to him.
Those funds helped transport New York advertising titan Carl Spielvogel to Slovakia, and Boston hotelier and tourism executive James Daley to Barbados. Less generous but very active on issues, New York socialite and abortion rights advocate Robin Chandler Duke goes to Norway. Spielvogel was nominated in 1999 (and actually sent to the Senate floor by the Foreign Relations Committee), and the other two were named a few months ago. But the Republican-controlled Senate is averse to political nominees amidst a presidential campaign.
Ambassadorial nominations for political donors with little or no diplomatic credentials is an old, bipartisan and unsavory American custom. What distinguishes this trio is how they reached their far-flung posts. With their nominations dead in the Senate, Clinton chose a technique developed to keep government functioning in bygone days when congressional sessions were short.
There is no previous case of recess appointments in the closing days of an administration to political donors of the president's heir apparent. President George Bush made only three diplomatic recess appointments (including illustrious career diplomat Deane Hinton to Panama and Lawrence Eagleburger as Secretary of State after Clinton won the election). President Ronald Reagan made just three such appointments in 1984 after Bush had been elected -- including the distinguished Democrat Paul Nitze as an arms control negotiator and foreign service officer Peter Bridges to Somalia.
Clinton's nominees are not in that category. Spielvogel, 71, is a former New York Times advertising columnist who struck it rich on Madison Avenue. While a patron of the arts, he has no discernible foreign policy experience. But since 1997, he and his wife, Barbara, have contributed at least $246,000 to Democratic causes (including $142,000 in soft money). On Aug. 6, three days after his recess appointment, Ambassador Spielvogel raised another $250,000 for Gore with a fund-raising brunch at his estate in the Hamptons.
The foreign policy background for Daley, 59, is no more substantial than Spielvogel's though the State Department report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee cites his promotion of Boston tourism as valuable experience. A dropout from chiropractic college, he made his fortune running long-term care facilities in Newton, Mass. He and his wife, Kathleen, since 1997 have contributed $285,000 (including $200,000 in soft money).
Robin Chandler Duke, 76, the widow of Angier Biddle Duke, has seen more of the world than the other two nominees if only as the wife of a famous diplomat. Like Daley, she has no baccalaureate degree but has wide experience as a birth control activist. She is president emeritus of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and only last year was named director of the U.S. committee for UN population control. That activist record may make up for Mrs. Duke's less spectacular political giving: $17,500 since 1997.
Meager qualifications by Spielvogel and Daley and sustained activism by Duke made them unconfirmable by a Republican Senate in the closing days of a Democratic administration. To give them the lifetime title of ambassador and six months or less in their posts costs American taxpayers a total of $105,000 in moving expenses, as estimated by the State Department.
"There is no foreign policy rationale in these recess appointments," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee spokesman Marc Thiessen. "They could be home before they unpack their bags." They could, unless Gore is elected and continues his supporters in their new posts.