How serious is John Bolton about potentially running for president? He’s about to start hiring for his political operation.
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and conservative star is ready to hit the road, play in the 2014 midterm elections, and flesh out his domestic-policy views —including his support for gay marriage — in preparation for throwing his hat in the ring in 2016.
For Bolton, the path here — to the cusp of running — has been a winding one. Save for his trademark snow-white mustache, he could be mistaken for just another Washington, D.C., lawyer as he makes his way to work each morning from his home in Bethesda, Md. He spends his days at the American Enterprise Institute, ensconced in a glassy corner office, writing columns on foreign policy, as he did for the Wall Street Journal this week. Or he’s at Kirkland & Ellis LLP, reviewing litigation for his firm’s clients. At night, when he’s not giving a speech to college students or corporate executives, he usually heads over to 400 North Capitol Street, near Union Station, where he sits in a brightly lit studio. There, he talks through the latest Middle East mess with Greta Van Susteren or Bret Baier, two of the stars at Fox News, where he’s a contributor. (He’s also on the board of the National Review Institute.)
For most former executive-branch appointees, this is the good life. Paid speeches, prestigious op-ed placements, a TV contract, and a think-tank fellowship — not bad for a 64-year-old former diplomat, a onetime power broker now out of power. “I like to say that I don’t have one job, but several,” Bolton tells me with a quick chuckle, quite aware of his plum perch. “I write, I speak, and I practice law.” As Mark Leibovich observes in his book This Town, such amorphous employment is the ultimate sign of clout in the capital. “You know you’ve made it in D.C.,” he writes, “when someone says that ‘it isn’t clear what he does’ about you.”
But this life, this plush political winter, isn’t enough for Bolton, who’s best known for his controversial tenure at Turtle Bay during George W. Bush’s administration. He wants to be president of the United States, or, at the very least, a provocative contender for the Republican nomination in 2016. “My hypothesis is that voters are practical and they care more about national security than the media seems to believe; I think, right now, especially after two terms of President Obama, they want a president who has the know-how to lead during a crisis, a president who can defend our national interests,” he says.
When I mention that such a bid, however well intentioned, would be fraught with difficulty, Bolton immediately acknowledges that the idea of a run sounds fanciful — even to his wife and daughter, who have expressed their own reservations. “It’d maybe be a little unorthodox,” he admits. And until now, he has kept quiet about his brewing plan, so as not to invite scorn from his critics until he gets his political shop up and running. But these days, he thinks about it nearly daily, and the prospect excites him more than any other project has since his time at the U.N. Soon enough, he says, he’ll be talking more about it at rubber-chicken dinners, so now’s as fitting a time as any to be more candid.
Over the past few months, Bolton confides, he has called veteran Republican strategists and friends from the Bush years, informally pitching them on what he envisions as a policy-driven, hawkish campaign. Most of the people on the other side of the line are surprised, even shocked, to hear that Bolton, a no-nonsense, private man, is serious. Bolton, though, presses on, and urges them to e-mail him tidbits of advice or early-state contact information. “I’ve enjoyed the process,” he says. “It’s taken some time to put together, since I’m paying close attention to the business details of how to run a PAC, like why it costs so much to do direct mail. At times, I feel like I’m back at Covington & Burling doing campaign-finance law.”
He’s now well beyond simply musing in AEI’s cafeteria. “You may recall that I thought about running back in late 2011, and looked into it, but since running for president has become this massive, four-year endeavor, [and] I didn’t have an operation in place, I decided against it,” Bolton says. “Then I ended up watching the Republican debates, and I got furious when I saw Herman Cain being asked about pizza before he was asked about foreign policy. I thought to myself, ‘This is horrible. We’re letting the media run these debates, and no one is discussing the issues.’”
“After that, I sat back and thought that if I had the chance, I had to do something more for my party and my country than idly watching as the debate on foreign policy and America’s role in the world devolves into these bumper-sticker slogans, or veers toward the isolationist undercurrent that’s growing,” he continues. “That means forming a political-action committee and a super PAC, hitting the road and speaking out, and looking into my own campaign, and I’m doing all of that.”