Bull in the China Shop

By Carl M. Cannon, National Journal

At some point, John Bolton's confirmation process began to sound like the opening line of a gag: Did you hear the one about the nominee who ran into trouble because a bunch of senators found him bossy and high-handed?

There's no punch line -- yet. But last week, as White House aides increased the pressure on Republican senators to confirm Bolton as President Bush's United Nations ambassador, a scent of ignominy lingered in the air. If this nomination is rejected -- and Democrats put their chances of scuttling it at 50-50 -- Bolton will go down as the man whose haughtiness grossed out that most imperious of institutions: the U.S. Senate.

On the irony meter, this wasn't on par with the way North Korean functionaries responded to Bolton's criticism of that regime's famine politics (they called him "human scum" and "a bloodsucker"), but Republicans could hardly be blamed for believing that Democrats came to the Bolton hearings with an agenda.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has tangled with Bolton in the past, and he expressed opposition to the nomination the day it was announced. To Democrats, the more salient question isn't why they oppose Bolton, it's why Bush nominated this human lightning rod in the first place.

When Condoleezza Rice introduced Bolton on March 7 as the U.N. pick, her remarks had a distinctly defensive tone. Tacitly admitting Bolton's reputation for bombast -- at times aimed at the United Nations itself -- the secretary of State noted that some of America's most effective U.N. representatives had "the strongest voices." A Rice aide volunteered another historical metaphor: Sending Bolton to the U.N. was reminiscent of Nixon's going to China.

"I think Condi wanted him out of the building," one former Clinton administration official said. "No one thinks great things will be happening at the U.N., so maybe this is where he could do the least damage."

But Democrats may be projecting. Privately, Rice has told friends, including Democrats from her Stanford days, that Bolton is the kind of plainspoken person that the moribund and corrupt United Nations needs. And what was apparent as the hearings progressed was that each side was talking past the other, and that numerous factors had come together to deny Bolton easy sailing.

Partisanship: Democrats remember Bolton as one of the GOP lawyers dispatched to Florida during the 2000 recount. For Bolton, it was more than a legal case, it was a cause. He is an in-your-face conservative activist, dating back to his high school days as a Barry Goldwater acolyte; his equivalent on the committee is his fiercest critic, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. It is virtually an organic imperative for Democrats to tangle with Bolton -- and he with them.

Ambition: White House officials noticed how Biden, whose 1988 presidential run was cut short by allegations of plagiarism, but who is considering 2008, complicated things. And Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a possible '08 contender, didn't help. Biden seized on an 11th-hour allegation by a Dallas liberal named Melody Townsel that in 1994 Bolton "behaved like a madman" in a Moscow hotel room. Hagel startled onlookers by saying at an April 20 hearing that he'd vote for Bolton in committee, but perhaps not on the floor.

The Allegations: Hagel's gambit was trumped by another Republican, Ohio's George Voinovich, who at that hearing abruptly withdrew his support for Bolton until Townsel's claims could be investigated. Voinovich is not known to have presidential ambitions, but he is known as a gentleman -- who has actually chided senior members of his own staff for raising their voices to junior aides. ("His idea of criticism is to say something like, 'I love you like a son, but please don't do that,' " one aide said.) This week, Townsel began unraveling as a witness, outing herself as a college newspaper plagiarist (that word again!) at the same time she attacked Republicans for questioning her credibility.

Bolton as Proxy: What has galvanized Democrats is less Bolton's temperament than how he uses it to browbeat underlings who question his views on something as important as Cuba's bioweapons program. This is more substantive than good manners, and it struck a nerve with Democrats who believe that as far back as the Clinton administration, they were lax in challenging the intelligence community's assessment of Iraq's WMD program. They believe, moreover, that the Bush administration has some 'splainin' to do at the U.N. over this issue -- and that the Bolton pick suggests that Bush does not get it.

"I'm not against 'Nixon goes to China,' but if you want to reform the U.N., you've got to believe in the essential importance of the institution," says Wendy Sherman, who served at the State Department in the Clinton administration. "The person to convey that message, in my view, is not John Bolton."

Where Republicans see a tough guy, Democrats see a bull in a china shop. Where Republicans see someone who will confront hypocrisy by pointing out obvious truths, Democrats see a bully who will exacerbate the backlash against America.

In other words, Bolton is a perfect stand-in for the man who nominated him.