Truly righteous indignation is rare in Washington, and in that respect former State Department intelligence chief Carl Ford Jr.’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday was about as good as it gets. Ford’s sterling reputation as analyst—coupled with his staunchly conservative, pro-Bush/Cheney credentials—made it impossible for anyone to question his veracity or his judgment as he described U.N. ambassador hopeful John Bolton as a “quintessential kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy” and a “bully” whose “serial abuse” of subordinates causes so much “collateral damage and personal hurt” that he’s unworthy of any high office.
Injection of no-bullshit language into normally staid Senate proceedings aside, Ford’s testimony also seemed a potentially heady moment for Bolton-loathing Republicans, who, armed with Ford’s ammo, were presented with a rare opportunity to show some spine. Alas, wishing does not make it so: Surrendering senatorial prerogative in the name of deference to presidential desire, committee chair and well-known Bolton foe Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, all but put his nuts in a jar stamped “To W and Dick, w/love from our end of Pennsylvania Ave to yours.” On par with Lugar was Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee, whose public antipathy to Bolton has been such that some expected him to mount a zealous opposition that might even culminate with a vote against the nominee. Rather than channel his inner Mr. Smith, Chafee said he was “inclined” to support Bolton as Ford’s testimony was “focused on one incident,” and was not part of a “pattern.”
Committee Democrats, however, stated they had depositions from other intelligence officials that show a pattern of similar behavior in recent years. Whether those testimonies will ever be revealed is anyone’s guess. But when it comes to gauging if Bolton is in fact a chronic bully who’s so off-putting that he shouldn’t be anywhere near one of America’s most important and prestigious diplomatic jobs, it’s worth looking back a little further than his recent stint at the State Department—where, in news reports of years past, words like “brusque,” “abrasive” and “caustic,” appear near Bolton’s name with some regularity.
As some may recall, Bolton entered public life in the Reagan Administration, arriving at the White House first and then the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 1982 as general counsel. Despite having no foreign policy or development experience, Bolton seemed to have the right stuff, and within a year had risen to become USAID’s assistant administrator for policy and programs. At a 1982 conference of the International Fund for Agricultural Development—an organization where, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, “power blocs that hardly ever seem to agree” found unusual common ground—Bolton, according to officials present at and familiar with the conference, alienated many by announcing “with inappropriate gusto,” as one put it, cutbacks in U.S. support for the organization.
After his stint at USAID, Bolton went in 1985 to Ed Meese’s Justice Department as Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs—in effect, Justice’s lobbyist in Congress. By 1988, according to Washington lawyers and published accounts, Bolton was itching to leave government service for the world of high-priced lobbying. Yet Bolton stayed on at Justice, moving laterally to head the department’s civil division, for a reason almost unheard of in a town that worships at the altar of the revolving door: No one would hire him to work as a lobbyist.
Why? According to a March 1988 Legal Times article, while many of the dozen-plus lobbying firms Bolton interviewed with acknowledged his formidable intellect, they nonetheless saw him as a liability on account of an “abrasive and combative tone [that has] cost him friends on Capitol Hill.” As one source told the paper, “There’s a demeanor that’s required, and he doesn’t have it.” Or, as a longtime member of the D.C. bar puts it: “You can take up for your administration and toe its line before Congress without being an asshole. Bolton seemed to think being an asshole was essential to his job. And the fact that he was an asshole on a number of issues that would have made anyone advocating them seem like an asshole to begin with didn’t help.”
Indeed, in his time as Justice’s man on the Hill, Bolton championed with enthusiastic causticity such dubious Reagan Justice Department positions as: the denial of financial recompense to Japanese-American survivors of WWII internment camps; the dubious assertion of executive privilege by Reagan during William Rehnquist’s chief justice confirmation hearings, when Congress asked for memos written by Rehnquist as a Nixon Justice Department official; the framing of a draconian anti-illegal immigrant bill as an essential drug war measure, despite the DEA’s own figures showing that less than 5 percent of drugs entering the U.S. came in through illegals; and, perhaps most memorably, the unapologetic stonewalling of committees investigating Iran-Contra.
He also issued Justice Department conflict-of-interest rules for special prosecutors—rules that were quickly withdrawn, as they had almost nothing to do with ensuring the integrity of independent counsels, and just about everything to do with shutting down several investigations that were inconveniencing the Reagan administration. In a press release unauthorized by his superiors, Bolton viciously lashed out at lawmakers and independent counsels alike, directing particular vitriol in the direction of Alexia Morrison, the independent counsel investigating former Justice Department official Theodore Olson. (Though cited for contempt, Olson would ultimately escape prosecution and go on to spearhead the notorious anti-Bill Clinton “Arkansas Project,” and eventually become George W. Bush’s solicitor general.)
As Bolton shifted to the head of Justice’s Civil Division in 1988, it seemed to many in Washington that he couldn’t possibly do anything more to endear him to Congress less. Yet he promptly became then representative Pat Schroeder’s whipping boy for trying to fire a Civil Division lawyer. The lawyer’s firing offense, in Schroeder’s view? Trying to take maternity leave.
Still not fully recovered from a difficult pregnancy, on January 25, 1988, Joan Bernott, a 10-year Justice Department veteran, had requested an extended leave at her doctor’s urging. Bolton not only denied it, but threatened Bernott with dismissal and legal action. “He hasn’t just denied my request for leave, he has issued reprisals against me, accused me of fraud, asked me to sign waivers of confidentiality of all my medical records,” Bernott told The New York Times, adding that Bolton “has demanded that my physicians answer 27 questions—probing details of their opinion and my medical condition” in addition to nixing her next assignment.
“Mr. Bolton’s approach to maternity leave is: get pregnant, get interrogated, get fired,” Schroeder, a Democrat of Colorado, wrote in a letter to then attorney general Ed Meese. Bolton also took the position that Bernott had no legal recourse, and sent her a letter actively discouraging her from retaining counsel. Both Bernott’s attorney and Schroeder disagreed—as, ultimately, did Bolton’s more compassionately conservative superiors at Justice, who granted Bernott both her leave and her job.