One of the more heartwarming traditions of Christmas in Washington is opening dozens and dozens of inspiring cards from people and institutions you don't know.

So when colleagues here received their personal cards from Vice President Gore, each one individually machine signed, they were delighted. But there was something odd about the picture on the front. Gore and family seemed to have been pasted on to the pasture background. Something like those presidential cardboard cutouts for tourist snapshots on Pennsylvania Avenue.

A phony Christmas card? From the candidate who's trying so hard to be real? The newsroom was stunned. So we checked with Post photo chief Joe Elbert. "It looks totally fake," he assured us after studying it closely, "but it's quite real." There was something about how outdoor lighting can create that effect.

The shot was taken by a private photographer at the farm in Carthage, Tenn., in the fall.

Alas. Even when he's real, he looks phony. Must be a campaign metaphor in this somewhere.

No. 136, the Lowest-Rated Ambassador

Judging from a stinging report by the State Department Office of Inspector General, Ambassador to Romania James C. Rosapepe has never studied the Dale Carnegie classic, "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

"In 44 personal questionnaires OIG received," the September report said, "the ambassador scored an average of 3.28 out of a possible 10 in management/leadership categories." The former Maryland House of Delegates member's scores in seven of those categories "were the lowest recorded by OIG for any of the 136 ambassadors, charges d'affaires, and assistant or deputy assistant secretaries rated by their staff since 1991." Yikes!

As a result, the report said, "stress levels are high, morale is not."

The report credits Rosapepe, a Clinton political appointee, for his diligent trade promotion efforts--though companies accused him of playing favorites--and for his work to keep Romania from bolting from the NATO line during the Kosovo campaign.

But the OIG harshly rebuked Rosapepe, in Bucharest since February 1998, for failing to keep Washington informed of his activities and the situation in Romania. Washington officials called the embassy reporting "slanted" and infected with "clientitis." "We really have no idea what is going on over there," the report quoted one official as saying.

Overall, the report found "the embassy suffers from a confusion of ends and means, from too much direction and too little leadership."

Rosapepe allies dismiss much of this as inevitable backlash when a go-getter hits an entrenched organization.

"It doesn't surprise me when he ruffles feathers in a bureaucracy," said Lanny J. Davis, former Clinton special counsel and close Rosapepe pal from Maryland political days. Most all the criticism in the report is about "bureaucratic process," Davis said, while "all the praise is for performance," such as the Kosovo diplomacy.

"He's definitely going to do better and more timely reporting" to Washington, said Davis, who discussed the report with Rosapepe.

The Whole Nine Yards

Also on the ambassadorial front, John C. Kornblum, our man in Berlin, has been having an especially nasty fight with Berlin's mayor over the site of a new U.S. embassy. New U.S. security rules require a buffer of 33 yards around embassies, but the Germans say they can only give 24 yards without causing major traffic disruptions in the heart of the city.

German officials were quoted recently as saying Kornblum was leaving this summer a bit before the end of the usual three-year tour, implying Washington displeasure with him.

Puzzled State Department folks say he's not being recalled or pulled out early and that the only criticism they have of him is that he tends to doze off during meetings. Career foreign service officer Elizabeth Jones, formerly ambassador to Kazakhstan and now principal deputy assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, is expected to succeed him in the normal rotation.

3 Recess Appointments

As expected, President Clinton has recess-appointed Mark L. Schneider, a former Peace Corps volunteer, Senate aide, State Department official and now an assistant administrator at the Agency for International Development, to be director of the Peace Corps.

In addition, the White House announced a recess appointment for Florida Democrat and consultant Luis Laredo, formerly executive director of the Summit of the Americas, to be the U.S. representative to the Organization of American States. Also, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission general counsel C. Gregory Stewart gets another term in that post.

Under the Constitution, these appointees can serve until Congress adjourns next fall.