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The price of becoming ambassador to Hungary

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Watching John McCain set-up a fellow senator like a bowling pin is a rare Washington pleasure. Even when he does it in Budapest.

A couple of weeks ago, McCain made a visit to Budapest, to meet with Hungary’s wily prime minister. McCain also decided to hold a news conference with two dozen Hungarian journalists. I suspect that McCain decided to meet the press in Budapest mainly so that his delegation would be asked questions about a woman named Colleen Bell.

Bell is a soap opera producer – “The Bold and the Beautiful” is her masterwork – who was nominated by President Barack Obama’s administration to serve as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Bell, one of Obama’s larger fundraising “bundlers,” bought this nomination with more than $500,000 of mostly other people’s money.

At her confirmation hearing last month, McCain asked Bell an exceedingly simple question: “What are our strategic interests in Hungary?”

She gave the following imperishable answer: “Well, we have our strategic interests, in terms of what are our key priorities in Hungary, I think our key priorities are to improve upon, as I mentioned, the security relationship and also the law enforcement and to promote business opportunities, increase trade”

McCain interrupted her: “I’d like to ask again what our strategic interests in Hungary are.”

Bell plowed ahead. “Our strategic interests are to work collaboratively as NATO allies, to work to promote and protect the security, both – for both countries and for – and for the world, to continue working together on the cause of human rights around the world, to build that side of our relationship while also maintaining and pursuing some difficult conversations that might be necessary in the coming years.”

To which McCain replied, witheringly, “Great answer.”

Bell’s performance didn’t draw much media attention, mainly because she was blessed to be testifying that same day with the administration’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Norway, the Long Island hotelier George Tsunis, who didn’t seem to know that Norway is a monarchy, and who also called a party in Norway’s ruling coalition a “fringe” element given to spewing hatred. Tsunis, like Bell, and an unfortunately large number of other Obama nominees for ambassadorial slots in consequential countries, is also a bundler.

Tsunis became a bigger YouTube star than Bell, but not in Budapest. In Budapest, they’re highly interested in her. When a reporter, early in the news conference, asked McCain about Bell, a devilish smile played across his face.

“We’re very fortunate,” he said, “to have with us today the chairman of the committee that holds the hearings that these nominees come before, and that is Senator Murphy, and he is very knowledgeable about these issues.”

Three things then happened. First, most everyone at the news conference laughed. Second, one of the people who didn’t laugh, the aforementioned Sen. Chris Murphy, a freshman Democrat from Connecticut, approached the podium as if it were covered in rat poison. Third, McCain winked – not at all subtly – at the three American journalists sitting in the front row.

McCain had set up a test for Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs.

Here is the answer that I hoped that Murphy would give: “Colleen Bell was nominated to serve as ambassador to Hungary not because she knows anything about Hungary, or about Europe, or NATO, or the democratic development of former Soviet satellite states, but because she raised just an ungodly amount of money for President Obama, and in our country, we have a bipartisan tradition of selling ambassadorships to vulgar people of great means. The good news is that Bell is a successful, ambitious person who has at least a small chance of gaining direct access to the president or at least to his people – admittedly none of whom particularly care about Hungary – and also, she will throw excellent parties to which I’m sure at least some of the less-unwashed journalists among you might be invited.”

But what he actually told the media was both entirely predictable and wholly dispiriting: “I think Hungary and the bilateral relationship is going to be very well-served by Colleen Bell’s arrival. Ms. Bell has had an extensive history of involvement with a number of very important causes in the United States. She has visited Budapest and Hungary, and I think she is going to be a very strong ambassador, and we look forward to coming back and working with her in the very near future.”

The corruption here is multilayered. There is the corruption of governance and diplomacy, in which ambassadorships are sold to the highest bidder. And then there is a more subtle form of corruption, in which the people’s representatives are made to feel as if they must provide cover for the corrupt practices of the executive branch.

• Jeffrey Goldberg writes about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffreyGoldberg.

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