The price of a fine ambassadorship has gone up dramatically in recent years. Maybe oil and the always-hot D.C. housing market have gone up more, but the plum postings, especially some of the cushy ones in Europe, are now going for a couple hundred thousand dollars each in political contributions.

The Netherlands went to Roland Arnall, who contributed perhaps a record-breaking $1.1 million. Portugal went to Florida developer Al Hoffman, who chipped in more than $400,000 -- and the Vatican went to Oklahoma businessman L. Francis Rooney III, who forked over a quarter-mil.

Presidents have been selling ambassadorships -- Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't send Joseph Kennedy to London because Kennedy was a skilled diplomat. President Bill Clinton, for example, didn't send the California hotelier Larry Lawrence -- who we recall was briefly buried in Arlington cemetery -- to Switzerland because of his foreign policy bona fides. Smaller, less diplomatically important European postings have typically been doled out by winners to their supporters.

Still, figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show substantially different patterns between the Clinton and Bush administrations in filling even the more important ambassadorships -- especially in the second term.

Bush's appointees are heavily weighted to money and cronies, such as roller-bearing king William "Timmy" Timken Jr., investment guru Ronald P. Spogli and auto magnate Robert Holmes Tuttle. Texas Rangers buddy J. Thomas Schieffer is in Tokyo after a stint in Australia. Craig R. Stapleton picked up the usually pricey slot in France for a mere $116,000 -- but he's related by marriage to Bush.

There are a couple pols on Bush's list, though none with national credentials. Antonio Garza Jr. had been the Texas secretary of state. Former South Carolina House speaker David Wilkins, who helped save Bush's 2000 campaign after Bush lost the New Hampshire primary, was given Canada. (He'd been there once, visiting Niagara Falls.) In contrast, Clinton's picks leaned heavily to veteran lawmakers who lost elections -- former senators James R. Sasser and Wyche Fowler Jr., former House members Thomas S. Foley and Thomas Foglietta and former Ohio governor Richard F. Celeste.

Clinton crony and former White House deputy chief of staff Philip J. Lader replaced Adm. William Crowe in London. Longtime Hill staffer and Atlanta lawyer Gordon Giffin, who was raised in Montreal and Toronto, replaced former Michigan governor James Blanchard in Ottawa.

Of course, being a crony, even a wealthy one, doesn't mean you're not qualified for the job. Democratic moneyman Felix Rohatyn, a major civic leader in New York City, was given high marks in Paris. Bush's man in Beijing, Yale classmate and Asia businessman Clark Randt Jr., has lived in and worked in Asia for decades, including a couple of years in Beijing, and speaks fluent Mandarin.

But keep those checkbooks handy.

A Stalled Nomination

Speaking of ambassadorships, we have a new definition of chicken fecal matter, stunning even for Washington standards.

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and former Bush Cabinet member, is reportedly holding up the nomination of prominent Washington lawyer and former Bush I White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to the European Union, allegedly because Gray favored Martinez's opponent in the GOP Senate primary.

One of Gray's jibe at Martinez -- "We simply do not need any more Republicans who oppose tort reform in the Senate" -- particularly rankled, according to columnist Robert D. Novak.

The hold, we are assured, has absolutely nothing to do with Gray's qualifications, which are most substantial -- even excluding his $600,000 in campaign contributions to the GOP in the past six years.

Commemorating Rail Reform

Loop Daybook for Oct. 18: "American Enterprise Institute -- Brookings Joint Center luncheon and discussion on the 25th Anniversary of the Staggers Rail Act and how it improved the American freight rail industry." Interviews with the speaker, Clifford Winston, "available on request."

VIP Hotel Guests Face Heated Dilemma

Being secretary of state means you've got to make the tough decisions, as Condoleezza Rice discovered last week in Kazakhstan. It's almost winter there, and the luxury Okan Intercontinental Astana was pumping out the heat, trying to make sure the important guests were warm.

And indeed they were. Then some were sweating as the heat kept pumping. Finally, it got so much by evening that Rice had to ask for an electric fan. Problem was, plugging in the fan meant unplugging the lamp. Cool or light? Hot or dark?

Rice chose the dark.