If John Bolton goes down in flames then it will be fitting for all of us who thought he was always the wrong choice to be US ambassador to the United Nations to tip a hat of gratitude to Richard Cohen.
He is the Washington Post columnist who recently broke through all the ponderous verbiage surrounding the nomination with a four-letter word. Recalling a conference in Bellagio, Italy, that both had once attended, Cohen described the moustachioed apostle of American muscularity as “nuts”.
It broke a logjam of decorum, itself owing something to the deference paid to Condi Rice as new secretary of state, who announced the nomination. Some cynics speculated that it was an artful move by her in getting Bolton moved out of the state department, where he had been the bane of Colin Powell’s life, but such thoughts were mostly buried inside the stories.
Post-Cohen, all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to suggest that the nominee was not as Rice and the president described him. You could almost hear the suppressed giggle in Joe Biden’s voice when the senator from Delaware told the foreign relations committee: “In your heart you know he’s…(pause)…the wrong man…”. This, of course, was a play on the old crack used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. His campaign slogan had been “in your heart you know he’s right”, which Democrats deftly changed by substituting “nuts” for “right”.
It was not merely the worker bees who started remembering past unpleasant confrontations with Bolton. Powell himself expressed his reservations in discreetly leaked phone conversations with senators; his former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, said he thought the selection “abysmal.”
Even Jack Straw, the UK foreign minister, contributed from across the Atlantic, conspicuously not denying reports that he had asked Powell to take Bolton off joint negotiating teams on issues such as Libya because he was too much the loose cannon.
Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s high priestess of fashion, even wondered about the contrast between his fierce white moustache and sandy brown hair, recommending he dye the former. (I have both, too, but do not look like Bolton nor share his characteristics; I was once Günter Grass’s doppelgänger and never minded that comparison).
To Bolton’s defenders this was all part of the standard character assassination scenario so familiar in Washington. Sure, he could be outspoken, they said, but only in defence of American interests; Dick Cheney, a vice-president who even swears at senators he dislikes in sotto voce tones, saw nothing wrong in having a temper.
I have never met John Bolton, nor covered him journalistically, but I do hang out with reporters and diplomats who know him and the scuttlebutt is not generally kind. Early in the first George W. Bush term, a British ambassador (not to the US, I hasten to add) privately told me he thought him “bonkers” – and he was not talking about sex.
Of course, some of us thought that with the inmates now running the asylum, it was inevitable that the lunatics would end up in positions of authority. Bolton was not the only manifestation of this phenomenon but was among the most visible.
Cocktail-party chatter of this kind is not always edifying but when there is enough of it, from diverse sources with no personal axes to grind, it acquires a certain legitimacy. It does help form judgments, although these are not always easy to put into public print.
For example, I reported on Newt Gingrich as he rose from political bomb-thrower to Speaker of the House in 1995 and was convinced early on that sooner or later his overweening vanity would cause him to implode, which eventually he did.
But re-reading yellowing pink clippings it is hard to find much evidence of that in what I wrote, beyond a few mostly buried comments. Journalistic caution, even the need to be “fair and balanced” in the true meaning of the words, is a powerful constraint – and Bolton benefited from that until Richard Cohen cut through the niceties,
A comparable drama is being played out internationally in the search for a new United Nations high commissioner for refugees. In the field are two high-profile candidates, Bernard Kouchner, the French humanitarian expert, and Emma Bonino, the former EU commissioner, with especially ardent supporters and vehement detractors.
The anecdotal scuttlebutt in the humanitarian community is that they grandstand too much and would transform UNHCR into personal fiefdoms. But it is an agency in need of distinctive leadership. The decision thus hangs on the competing claims of private opinion versus public records, both of which may have merit.
Power and patronage come into it, too. It is no secret that Bolton had a hotline to Cheney’s office – and hence the Oval one – and that there was very little Powell could do about this. The former secretary of state might have stamped his foot but confrontation was never his way and he probably had bigger fish to fry.
There are many other considerations in appointments (viz, the nannygate allegations) But a good four-letter word can cut through all the guff. All suggestions as to what to call Tom DeLay will be gratefully received.