“Who was our last moustached president?” I ask John Bolton as we chat in his American Enterprise Institute office in downtown Washington, DC. “Taft,” he responds without hesitation, “And the last candidate was [Thomas] Dewey—not a comparison I’m excited about.” With a twinkle in his eye, he deadpans, “I think the American people would say it’s a complete non-issue.” The former US Ambassador to the United Nations may be willing to joke about his trademark facial hair, but as the 2012 election cycle looms, he sounds like a man who is seriously evaluating his own presidential aspirations.
Up to this point, Bolton has merely piqued the chattering class’ interest by refusing to foreclose the possibility of a presidential bid in a recent Daily Caller profile piece, and again during a Fox Business Network interview. Citing his chief priority of ensuring Republican gains in the 2010 midterm election, Bolton still won’t say if he’s planning to toss his hat into the ring, but now at least allows that he is “thinking about it very seriously”—a fairly significant rhetorical step toward to taking the plunge. It isn’t a new consideration either, he says. “I’ve been thinking about this really since it became clear early in the Obama administration that [the president’s] national security policy would be as bad as we feared it would be.”
Although Bolton denies he’s doing any heavy groundwork to set up a 2012 campaign, he’s not sitting still either. “What I am doing is talking to people who are experts on presidential campaigns because I’ve never run for elective office before,” he explains, before parenthetically pointing out that he is familiar with campaign finance law by dint of his work on the landmark 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo. I ask if he’s planning any trips to Iowa in the relatively near future, a question that he adroitly sidesteps with a chuckle and a change of subject.
If anyone doubts Bolton’s ability to withstand the rigors of a presidential bid, they ought to look no further than his grueling daily regimen. The 61-year-old Yale graduate wakes up every morning at 4 to read newspapers from across the globe, write, and prepare for media appearances and speeches. By the time most Americans slog into work, Bolton has already been absorbing information and generating content for five hours. As someone who requires very little sleep to function at a high level, Bolton finds the very early morning to be an especially productive period in his day because “the phone doesn’t ring at that time.” According to colleagues, Bolton also possesses a near-photographic memory, a quality he denies. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he says, chalking up his ability to retain enormous amounts of information to his training as a litigator.
A Focus on Foreign Affairs
In the policy arena, Bolton is best known for his strong, occasionally strident, views on foreign affairs and national security, so it’s no surprise that those issues would serve as a foundation for a potential Bolton-for-president effort. “Many Americans view foreign policy as a surrogate for leadership, character and judgment,” Bolton says. “In September and October of 2012, you’re going to have a Republican nominee going one-on-one with Barack Obama after three-and-a-half years of serving as Commander-in-chief. Although I think [Obama’s job] performance will still be very negative, because of his communication skills, he will look and sound like he’s in command. If the Republican nominee can’t match that, I think that’s going to be a huge problem.”
Does Bolton consider himself the only Republican in the current speculative presidential field equipped with the chops to outperform President Obama on a national stage? “It’s a fair question, and I’m not going to answer it, and I’ll tell you why,” he replies. “I’m going to strain every muscle to follow Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment—Thou Shalt Not speak ill of another Republican. I’m not saying these other candidates can’t talk about national security and foreign policy issues, and they will over time. But I believe that [the GOP] nominee must be in a position to not just hold his or her own with Obama in these debates, but to demonstrate a superior vision for the United States’ role in the world, and say how they as president would accomplish it. It has to go beyond talking points and platitudes.” Bolton continues that the Republican primary debates “will be very beneficial in that regard,” before quickly adding, “if I get to that point, which is a big if.”
The Goldwater Model
Given today’s political climate and the overarching priorities of the conservative movement, Bolton is under no illusions about the broad appeal of a foreign policy-centric candidacy. Even though those issues may form the raison d’etre of a Bolton campaign, “You can’t be a one-trick Johnny,” he asserts. “You’ve got to talk about a range of issues, which is why I was happy to lend a hand to the Tea Party Election Day project. I was pleased and honored that they found my views compatible with their work.” In a nod to fiscal conservatives, Bolton says his worldview includes a small-government ethos, modeled after Barry Goldwater’s credo of resisting new laws and repealing existing ones. “The objective overall should be a much smaller government, less federal spending, less taxation, and less regulation.” He characterizes the Tea Party movement as “absolutely” a positive American development because “it has brought attention back to spending and taxation in ways I believe explain the virulence of the Left’s attacks on the movement. They thought they had those issues locked up and put away, but the opposite is true.”
Mixed Views on Social Issues
Social issues may be perceived as less potent than ever, but in a primary battle, even minor differences among candidates’ positions will attract considerable attention. On abortion, Bolton invokes Ronald Reagan. “My position is the same as Reagan’s. As a form of birth control, it’s unacceptable,” he says, before launching several legal broadsides against Roe v. Wade—all while scrupulously avoiding the moral question of abortion. “Roe was an illegitimate decision that represents and illegitimate view of the Constitution. That doesn’t mean that people who favor more liberalized abortion shouldn’t be able to struggle politically on the federal and state level. The question that Roe poses is not whether the Court was right or wrong on abortion; it’s whether it was right or wrong as a matter of Constitutional jurisprudence. On that score, Roe was, and is, profoundly wrong.” Sensing a reluctance to wade into the moral component of the abortion debate, I ask Bolton if he considers himself pro-life. “I think that label fits me, and I appreciate that if I go forward, I’ll have to spell out my views in more detail.”
Reiterating a point he made to the Daily Caller, Bolton confirms he’s willing to rankle some social conservatives by positioning himself to the Left of President Obama by explicitly voicing support for gay marriage. “I think [same-sex marriage] is something that in society today, we ought to be able to live with,” he says. “I don’t, however, think this is a matter to be adjudicated in federal courts. I don’t think the Constitution speaks to the question at all. It’s an issue that ought to be primarily decided at the state level, rather than being handed down by judicial edict.”
A Flare for the Controversial
Bolton has not been a stranger to controversy during his career in public service. His nomination to the UN position was blocked by Democrats after a contentious confirmation process, leading to a recess appointment from President Bush. He was publicly accused of having a vicious temper, abusing staff (one allegation famously involved the throwing of a stapler), and antagonizing the very foreign diplomats he’d be charged with engaging at Turtle Bay. Bolton bristles at this line of criticism, dismissing it as unfair and labeling the unflattering anecdotes apocryphal.
“The stories themselves were false,” he says, directing me to a Congressional report that he believes to be a vindication of his record. “We can debate the confirmation stuff, but my bigger response is: I served in New York, and I’d be happy for people to evaluate my performance at the United Nations when the spotlight was on. Let [the critics] see how many of those types of stories they can find. If my opponents want to talk about that instead of the issues that really matter, let them do it. There’s no way you can stop it in politics today, and it doesn’t bother me because it’s not true.”
As for the question of whether a President Bolton would be perceived as unacceptably dogmatic in the eyes of American allies abroad, Bolton rejects the premise. “I wrote about this in my book. [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel once said to President Bush, ‘I wish I had your ambassador in New York, rather than mine,’” he says. “The fact is, I am a plain-speaker, and in America, plain speaking is a virtue. Although they may not say it publicly, foreign diplomats will tell you in private that they think it’s a virtue, too. People want to know where America stands.” Bolton again directs talk of perceptions back to his concrete record. “When the rubber meets the road, it’s performance that counts. In case after case in New York, in working with the other ambassadors, we came up with important resolutions that advanced American interests.”
Another factor that would inevitably arise if Bolton launches a campaign is his apparent falling-out with the very man who appointed him to his most prominent position, President George W. Bush. Following a spate of public criticism from Bolton in 2008, Bush was quoted in the New York Times as telling a group of conservative journalists that he didn’t consider his former Ambassador to be “credible.” Bush went further, allegedly deeming Bolton a waste of his political capital, in retrospect. These are damning indictments. But Bolton isn’t hung up on it, nor does he regret his criticism of the administration. “I was obviously not happy to see those comments, but it really was a disappointment to me that the president veered away from the policies he had articulated in his first term,” Bolton says. “And I never signed up for a permanent code of silence when I joined the administration.” Bolton hastens to add that he was a good soldier and served the president loyally. “Remember, I spent 31 days down in Florida working on the recount down there,” he says.
The Viability Question
Bolton cuts an impressive profile and makes a compelling case that he would bring a lot to the table, but the paramount question is whether mainstream voters could to embrace him. Put simply, can he win? “I don’t know,” he says, “But as I’ve said, the field is open. Republicans don’t have a presumptive heir this time around, and I think that’s one reason you hear so many names mentioned. I think that’s a plus for the party. I agree with everybody who says we should focus on November 2, 2010, but as soon as we get to the Wednesday after the election, people’s attention will turn to 2012—no doubt about it.” Bolton says he won’t rush into a decision one way or the other, and says the opinion of his family will weigh heavily on his final call. “I have a small family, and its members are ambivalent at the moment,” he says. “Politics is very nasty these days. I’ve been through one level of nastiness in my confirmation process. It didn’t bother me; it did bother my family because it was unfair, and the question of whether we’re going to enter an arena where the nastiness gets torqued all the way up to the highest level is a pressing one.” It’s Bolton’s first convincing indication that he’s still genuinely undecided.
Serious candidates for the presidency must harbor an almost surreal will to win, coupled with the pragmatism to make certain sacrifices that may be necessary to achieve the prize of the Oval Office. If Bolton ultimately chooses to cast his name into the arena, he readily admits there are certain compromises he’s simply unwilling to make. “If your advisors came to you and said ‘John, you’ve got a real chance to win this thing, but you’ve got to shave the moustache,’ would you do it?” I ask. Bolton stares at me blankly for a moment, fleetingly hints at a smile, then answers decisively: “Forget it.”