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  • By George Lardner Jr.
    and Walter Pincus

    Washington Post Staff Writers

    Thursday, October 30, 1997;
    Page A19

    While presidents have long bestowed U.S. ambassadorships on big campaign contributors,
    Richard M. Nixon put a specific price tag on the practice.

    "My point is, my point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000," the president told White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman on June 23, 1971, according to a newly transcribed tape.

    "Yeah," Haldeman agreed, and then proposed a minimal donation threshold. "I think any contributor under $100,000 we shouldn't consider for any kind of thing."

    Nixon pointed out that "we helped" Fred J. Russell, a millionaire California real estate baron and Republican donor who would soon be named ambassador to Denmark. "But from now on," the president continued, "the contributors have got to be, I mean, a big thing and I'm not gonna do it for political friends and all that crap."

    Nixon on ambassadors The conversation had started with Nixon asking about Belgium. "The ambassador to Brussels, that hasn't been promised to anybody, has it?" he inquired.

    When Haldeman said no, Nixon noted that his friend and fund-raiser Charles "Bebe" Rebozo had told him that Raymond Guest, who was ambassador to Ireland during the Kennedy administration, wanted Brussels.

    "I'm sure he's talking about a quarter of a million at least," Nixon said, "'cause he gave $100,000 last time, about 65 in one place and 35 in another. Now, he could be ambassador to Brussels. Find out when [the current ambassador to Belgium, John] Eisenhower leaves." As for Guest, Nixon added: "Uh, he's fine. His wife speaks French, he speaks French, uh, uh, but the cost is uh, a quarter of a million." Nixon indicated that his personal lawyer and another fund-raiser, Herbert W. Kalmbach, had set that minimum price as part of his solicitations of big donors for the 1972 election campaign.

    Haldeman agreed on the need to charge a hefty price for coveted foreign posts. "We sure, you know, there's a temptation to sell those posts for "

    Nixon finished the sentence: " cheap price."

    That fall, on Oct. 18, 1971, another ambassadorial appointment was discussed in the Oval Office by Nixon and his longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods. Woods reported reading in the newspaper that a New York socialite, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, was to be named U.S. ambassador to Spain.

    Nixon had been unaware of that, but indicated his approval. "Hell, if we did it, it was a great sale," the president said. "He gave a quarter of a million dollars."

    Little over a month later, on Nov. 29, Whitney's name came up again in a conversation with Haldeman.

    "Mitchell and/or [GOP fund-raiser Lee] Nunn," Haldeman said, "made a deal with him for 250."

    Nixon, however, had been having second thoughts. He was afraid he couldn't win Senate confirmation of the 72-year-old Whitney and thus couldn't make good on his part of the bargain. Congress at the time was debating campaign finance reform and one focus was the succession of major contributors getting ambassadorial posts.

    Haldeman suggested a refund. "We'll just tell Whitney we've got to get ... the 250 back to him," he said. If Whitney were nominated "he'd have to reveal his financial support," Haldeman added. "He'd have to lie or reveal it. And that would be a mess too."

    Nixon told Haldeman to return Whitney's money. "The 250 can go back," the president said. "I don't want the money. Just say that in view of the present temper put it on the Senate. But I'd say we just don't want him to be embarrassed. There's no way we can get him confirmed."

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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