TCS Daily

Applying the Clinton Standard for Bolton

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - May 10, 2005 12:00 AM

In his memoirs, George Stephanopoulos revealed that President Clinton was subject to "purple rages" and that Stephanopoulos oftentimes felt that his job was to get yelled at by the President in the morning so that the President would not go through the entire day angry. Bob Woodward's The Agenda reveals that upon hearing of a staffer's mistake in preparing advance work during the 1992 presidential campaign, then-Governor Clinton remarked in a white-hot rage that "I want him [the staffer] dead, dead. I want him killed. I want him horsewhipped." When informed by then-Senator Bob Kerrey that Clinton would not have Kerrey's vote for the 1993 economic package, Clinton screamed into the phone "f--- you!" and then slammed it down. (Kerrey decided eventually to vote "aye" though it is not clear whether the President's anatomical expletive had anything to do with changing Kerrey's mind.)

To be sure, this habit of mindlessly raging at others is reprehensible from the standpoint of courtesy and respect for others. And to be sure, Bill Clinton was not the only politician to be guilty of failing to show this degree of courtesy and respect. Politicians -- whether Democrats or Republicans -- are notorious for their rather imperious behavior towards anyone they do not consider an equal (which encompasses a great many people).

But the release of The Agenda did not prevent Bill Clinton from winning a second term in office -- indeed, its revelations about Clinton's volcanic temper did not even register on the electoral radar screen. Stephanopoulos's stories about "purple rages" didn't cause people to look upon Bill Clinton with disgust -- if anything, by writing his book, it was Stephanopoulos who was made to look like a traitor to the President who "made" him. And yet, these and related alleged personality deficiencies have been cited as a primary reason to oppose the nomination of John Bolton to serve as Ambassador to the United Nations.

One of the allegations against Bolton was made by former State Department official Carl Ford, who called Bolton a "kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy," meaning that Bolton would try to curry favor with his superiors while maltreating his subordinates. Interestingly enough, such allegations are concurrent with charges that Bolton "holds many strong views that diverge sharply from current U.S. policy." One cannot help but wonder how it is that Bolton supposedly "kisses-up" to his superiors while at the same time supposedly "diverg[ing] sharply" from official policy -- policy that is set by those superiors. Perhaps, as William Kristol indicates, the answer to this quandary is that John Bolton didn't "kiss-up" to anyone:

        "John Bolton is no 'kiss-up.' Quite the contrary. Over the last four years, he 
        was famously willing to challenge his bosses, Secretary of State Colin Powell 
        and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, at the daily 8:30 State Department 
        senior staff meeting. He paid a price for this, especially by earning the enmity 
        of Armitage. Carl Ford, the former State Department intelligence chief, was 
        a close associate of Armitage."

Indeed, we have yet more indications that a primary charge against Bolton is that he went against consensus opinion regarding foreign policy and intelligence matters -- a stance that now apparently will be rewarded by having those with whom Bolton clashed over intelligence and policy matters come to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testify with an axe to grind. Once again, all of this should cause people to wonder whether Bolton really "kissed-up" as successfully as Carl Ford alleged he did -- after all, it's a strange kind of "kissing-up" that entails having Bolton engage in policy arguments with so many people in the diplomatic and intelligence communities. Bolton's critics apparently have trouble getting their criticisms straight. Either Bolton's nomination should be disapproved because he is a "kiss-up" to his superiors or it should be disapproved because he is bull-headed and obdurate beyond measure in interactions with his superiors. These critics can pick one charge and run with it, but they can't have it both ways. And if they choose to portray Bolton as a "kiss-up" that charge is contradicted by the many times he argued against the opinions and policy stances of his superiors.

Of course, if obduracy is chosen as the personality deficiency to pin on Bolton's public image, it leaves one to wonder just how willing future (and current) public servants will be to challenge consensus thinking on policy issues of any stripe. We want our policymakers to engage in freewheeling discussions. True, from time to time, feelings will be hurt in these discussions, but why lose sleep worrying about the self-esteem problems of politicians? Such concerns take second place, after all, to the need to have a robust practice of debating policies and subjecting them to the most exacting of critiques in order to make sure that they are as intellectually rigorous as possible. But the contretemps over John Bolton may cause public servants to adopt more of a "get along to go along" manner. Such a practice might help public servants avoid being tagged as "temperamental" or "controversial" by a press corps and a political class that has shown and continues to show a willingness to annihilate the characters of public servants with whom they have policy disagreements, but it severely harms the policy process itself by placing a chilling effect on debates over issues of substance.

As for the "kick-down" allegations, it is a wonder that of all the politicians who might display imperious attitudes towards their subordinates, John Bolton is one of the few -- if not the only -- who is being attacked for his supposed inability to mind his P's and Q's. And when it comes to examining the "kick-down" allegations themselves, we find that they mostly consist of swearing matches between Bolton and his accusers; a "he said, they said" game where in the past, the benefit of the doubt went to the party being accused. Not in this case, however. In response to the allegations made by one Melody Townsel that Bolton engaged in personally abusive behavior towards her while they were both in Kyrgyzstan, Townsel's former employer put out a statement debunking her claims. Another accuser -- Lynne Finney -- claims that Bolton tried to have her fired over a dispute regarding rules on marketing infant formula in the Third World. The trouble is that Finney's immediate supervisor stated that he had "no recollection of the events Finney described." And yet, Finney's allegations remain alive and well and entirely capable of sinking Bolton's nomination, despite their lack of corroboration.

This is not to say that the only complaints against Bolton revolve around his supposed "kiss-up, kick-down" behavior. Indeed, if there are policy and process issues of a more substantive nature that would directly impact Bolton's performance as ambassador to the United Nations, they should be pursued and discussed. Of course, they have been pursued and discussed during Bolton's confirmation hearings and there was every opportunity to pursue and discuss those issues during Bolton's previous four (successful) confirmation hearings for positions in the United States government. And yet somehow, only now, in this fifth confirmation hearing do negative allegations meant to deal John Bolton's nomination and career a death by a thousand cuts emerge. Readers will -- I hope -- forgive those of us who wonder cynically about both the timing of these allegations and their glaring inherent weaknesses.



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