Beltway Bullfight

The case of John Bolton is about politics (unhousebroken conservatives must be stopped), payback (you tick me off, I’ll pick you off) and personality. People who have worked with him allege he is heavy-handed, curmudgeonly and not necessarily lovably so.

I don’t know him, but I suspect there’s some truth in it. Do the charges disqualify him to serve as American ambassador to the United Nations? If reports of his behavior are true—he is tough, pushes too hard, sends pressuring e-mails and may or may not have berated a coworker as he threw paper balls at her hotel door—the answer is no.

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Bad temper is a bad thing, but in government it’s a flaw with a long provenance. Bob Dole once slammed a phone down so hard it is said to have splintered. Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos tells us, used to go into “purple rages.” There is a past and possibly future presidential candidate who would regularly phone one of his staffers at home and ream that person out by screaming base obscenities. (I was impressed to learn the staffer felt free to respond in kind, and did.)

Harry S. Truman, as president, once threatened in writing to kick the testicles of a journalist (a music reviewer who had been nasty about the talents of Truman’s daughter). Lyndon Johnson would physically crowd people and squeeze their arms painfully as he tried to get them to do what he wanted; in his case arm-twisting was really arm-twisting. Richard Nixon is said to have snapped to an aide who came to him with some issue, “You must have me confused with somebody who gives a sh—.” He also physically pushed and humiliated his press secretary, Ron Zeigler.

And so it goes, and all the way back. Jefferson was a man of public dignity and the meanest private plotting. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. (I here invite all readers who work in government to give, in one paragraph, their memory of Most Obnoxious Hissy Fit by or Most Appalling Style of any unnamed government official with whom they have worked, and what they learned from it.)

Bad temper is a bad thing in a public servant, but it is not the worst thing. Worse is the person who judges all questions as either career-enhancing or career-retarding, who lets the right but tough choice slide if standing for it will make him controversial and therefore a target. Mr. Bolton apparently never does that. Worse is the person who doesn’t really care that the right thing be done, as long he gets his paycheck. That’s not Mr. Bolton either. Worse still is the cynic who is above caring about anything beyond his own concerns. And that isn’t Mr. Bolton either.

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What is interesting to me about the charges against Mr. Bolton is that he has not, apparently, been self-protective in the Washington way. People in government (and media, and the office tower across the street) are often courteous not because they believe deeply in the moral necessity of treating others with respect, but because they know rudeness is impractical. It makes enemies; it gives them something they can use against you. Government is inherently full of disagreement; why look for personal ones? It has long been said that in Washington a friend is someone who will stab you in the front. Mr. Bolton, again if the charges are true, has been a friend to many. He tells people off to their faces. That’s refreshing. As a human tic, if that’s what it is, it is probably more individually controllable than the temptation to damage people behind their backs, which is what people in intense environments more commonly and destructively do.

John BoltonJohn Bolton is conceded by all, friends and foes alike, to be very smart, quite earnest, hardworking and experienced (undersecretary of state, former assistant secretary of state, treaty negotiator, international development official and old U.N. hand; he played a major role in getting the U.N. to repeal its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism). He is also known as jocular and tough-minded. He has been highly critical of the United Nations. These are all good things.

If he is confirmed he will walk into the U.N. as a man whose reputation is that he does not play well with the other children. Not all bad. He will not be seen as a pushover. Good. Some may approach him with a certain tentativeness. But Mr. Bolton, having been burned in the media frying pan and embarrassed, will likely moderate those parts of his personal style that have caused him trouble. He may wind up surprising everyone with his openness and friendliness. Fine.

Or he’ll be a bull in a china shop.

But the U.N. is a china shop in need of a bull, isn’t it? The Alfonse-Gaston routine of the past half century is all very nice, but it’s given us the U.N. as it is, a place of always-disappointing potential. May not be a bad thing to try something else.