Under traditional ground rules, plum ambassadorships are doled out pretty much exclusively to people who have served this country in key ways, such as by being a family member or close friend of the president, by having campaigned or worked for him or by having been a longtime and huge contributor or fundraiser for the president and his party.

Contributions to political opponents, however, would invariably doom your chances for such jobs, unless those misdeeds were decades ago, before you saw the light.

But now it's clear that boatloads of money can compensate even for that last problem. And so President Bush has picked Los Angeles multibillionaire Roland Arnall, a longtime major Democratic contributor until just a year ago, to a most excellent posting as ambassador to the Netherlands.

How did this happen?

Well, Arnall and his wife, Dawn, were the single biggest source of financial support for Bush since 2002. Over the period, they gave and raised at least $12.25 million. Arnall and his company, Ameriquest Capital Corp., are reported to have given more than $1.2 million to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and raised much more.

Arnall's company is the largest mortgage lender to lower-income folks and those with iffy credit ratings. Concerns about shoddy lending practices, alleged fraud, falsification of documents and bait-and-switch sales tactics have been raised in a few -- okay, 25 -- states, the company announced a few months ago. Ameriquest also said it had agreed to pay as much as $50 million to settle allegations it had defrauded borrowers in four states, the Los Angeles Times reported.

So Bush gives The Hague to someone who gave $10,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as recently as June 4, 2004? George Soros, take note.

Please Disregard the Previous Denial

Speaking of ambassadorships, we wrote last month that serious buzz at Foggy Bottom and elsewhere had it that Prince Bandar bin Sultan was talking about leaving after 22 years as Saudi ambassador here.

Absolutely not, the Saudi Embassy said, issuing a statement saying that Bandar was vacationing and would return at the end of August.

So we were shocked last week when it was announced he was quitting. Guess he won't be returning at the end of August, after all.

Just A1 All-Around Super at State

New heights in the annals of puffery. Former ambassador to India and National Security Council aide Robert D. Blackwill, in an op-ed Friday in the Wall Street Journal, says that "diplomacy is flourishing once more at the State Department," thanks to "eloquent" Secretary Condoleezza Rice, his former boss.

And, by golly, she has "put together an all-star team" with the "best talent at State in decades." Deputy Secretary Robert B. Zoellick "may be the most talented number two . . . since [Dean] Acheson," Blackwill gushes. No. 3 Nick Burns "is the most gifted foreign service officer of his generation," says Blackwill, who is now at lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith and Rogers as head of its international division. Incoming public diplomacy chief Karen Hughes "is magisterial in her command of public persuasion." Counselor Philip D. Zelikow is "smarter than almost anybody."

Maybe there are international clients out there somewhere . . .

Bailing Out Early at the Safety Board

National Transportation Safety Board member Richard Healing abruptly resigned last week with 18 months left in his five-year term. His formal letter Monday to the president said, among other things, that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

While such an early departure is most unusual, chatter at the agency is that it wasn't wholly unexpected. Healing is said to have tired of personality and policy clashes with NTSB chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners, nominated in March for a second two-year term.

Unclear what the policy differences may have been, but Healing, a Bush appointee and the only member of the board with actual aviation experience, apparently favored a more hard-line approach by the independent NTSB in dealing with the Transportation Department's various components.

There's also been some much-publicized tussling between Engleman Conners and three of the five members, including Healing, who felt she'd been usurping their authority and undermining their independence. (This may have something to do with why the NTSB did so poorly, well below the government average, in a government-wide survey last fall when workers were asked whether they respected and were motivated by their organization's leaders.)

Healing's departure Aug. 1 will leave the five-member board with three members, and one, Deborah A.P. Hersman, is pregnant, an NTSB spokesman said, and likely to take off time this fall.

New Reconnaissance Chief

Donald M. Kerr, formerly assistant director of the FBI and more recently deputy director for science and technology at the CIA, has been named director of the National Reconnaissance Office. The announcement noted that the appointment, made by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was approved by Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

The NRO designs, builds and operates the nation's spy satellites.