Want to be an ambassador in Paris? That’ll be $1.1 million.

February 7, 2013

Let's say you're a wealthy donor helping to raise money for the president. Exactly how much do you need to cough up to get considered for one of those exciting embassy jobs? Say, a glamorous posting in Paris. Or Tokyo.

This embassy could be all yours for the low, low price of $1 million. (State Department)
This embassy could be all yours for the low, low price of $1 million. (State Department)

Yes, this is actually something that happens. The president, after all, is in charge of naming U.S. ambassadors all over the world. And historically, about 55 of those spots have gone to "political" appointees — wealthy donors or top fund-raisers. These are usually gigs in nice, stable countries like France or Italy. (By contrast, countries that require more diplomatic finesse — Egypt, say — tend to get more experienced "career" appointees to head up their embassies.)

And it turns out that the donors vying for these spots have to spend quite a bit. Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times recently reported on a fascinating paper (pdf) by two Penn State professors that attempted to put a price tag on these ambassadorships.

By combing through historical data, the authors discovered that large donors who become ambassadors are far more likely to get appointed to wealthy industrialized countries that are safe, stable, and popular tourist destinations. No surprise there. But the numbers were revealing. Political ambassadors who gave at least $650,000 in donations, for instance, had a 90 percent chance of getting posted to Western Europe.

The authors then tried to calculate an "implicit price tag" for each embassy posting, based on both direct contributions and bundling efforts. I've graphed a few of the countries below:

The authors calculate that a posting in Paris is currently worth about $1.1 million in direct contributions, although bundling together a variety of contributions worth $616,940 could suffice as well. An ambassadorship in Lisbon, meanwhile, isn't nearly as valuable — worth just $602,686 in direct contributions.

Now, to be clear, this is just an attempt to model the underlying value of these ambassador gigs, based on historical trends. There's no guarantee that contributing $1.1 million will get you that fancy house on the Champs-Élysées. The authors find that plenty of political appointees throughout history have "overpaid," while others have gotten ambassadorships at a relative bargain — perhaps because they had relevant skills or were closely connected to the president in other ways.

Case in point: Anna Wintour. For a brief while, the "Vogue" editor was rumored to be in the running to become the ambassador to Britain after raising $40 million for the president's reelection campaign. That actually would've been a steep overpayment — the authors calculate that the Court of St. James is "only" worth between $650,000 and $2.3 million. (It's all moot now, since Wintour has reportedly withdrawn from the race.)

Either way, these jobs certainly don't come cheap. And there's increasingly tight competition for the spots as Obama's second term begins. My colleague Al Kamen has reported that there were at least 200 donors who had either contributed or bundled at least $500,000 to the Obama reelection campaign. Many of those donors are likely to discover that the price of a cushy embassy gig is getting steeper and steeper with each passing year.

Further reading:

--There are lots of fascinating tidbits in the full study (pdf) by Pennsylvania State University professors Johannes W. Fedderke and Dennis C. Jett.

--Ezra Klein explained why political ambassadors in countries like France have often been rich — because the job typically involves throwing lots of parties and dinners, and the State Department budget doesn't cover the full cost.

--An excellent recent piece by Nicholas Confessore and Sheryl Gay Stolberg on how well-connected political donors jockey to become ambassadors.

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Evan Soltas · February 7, 2013