Two summers ago, National Review took one of its cruises, this one to the Eastern Mediterranean. We had several hundred passenger-readers aboard, and a slate of speakers. One of them was John Bolton, the lawyer and foreign-policy official. On the platform, he was really wowin’ ’em, with his hard-hitting foreign-policy analyses. Over the next couple of days, our passengers kept murmuring, “Bolton is really fantastic. He’s just the kind of man we need. Wouldn’t it be great if he ran for president?” The next time we were on the platform, I said to the audience, “I’ve been hearing a lot of ‘Bolton for President’ rumbles. We know he’s rock-solid on foreign policy. But what about his domestic views? For all we know, he’s a socialist — as some of the best hawks have been.” Bolton, with a glint in his eye, leaned into his microphone and said, “I don’t think you have to worry about that.”
One doesn’t. On Election Day 1964, John Bolton, 15, got permission to be absent from school: in order to pass out leaflets for Goldwater. “That was my formative political experience,” he says, the Goldwater campaign. Unlike his fellow Goldwaterite, Miss Hillary Rodham, he remained a Goldwaterite, unalloyed. His favorite line from The Conscience of a Conservative, the senator’s 1960 book, is, “My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” Bolton says, “Individual liberty is the whole purpose of political life, and I thought it was threatened back then” — in 1964 — “and I think it’s threatened now.”
Moreover, the Bolton groupies aboard that ship may get their wish: Bolton is thinking about running for president in 2012, and he’s thinking about it hard. He first thought about it in 2008, during the general-election campaign. “I was watching what was happening in 2008, and I thought, ‘How can this be?’” What he meant was, How could vital issues of national security be receiving so little attention? Then Barack Obama was elected. And, “as I followed his obsession with restructuring our entire domestic way of life, it became completely clear to me that our willful ignoring of national-security policy was going to cost us.” Someone, Bolton felt, had to raise the vital issues. “I write, I give speeches, I appear on television — but the only way in contemporary American circumstances to make those issues as salient as they should be is to run for president.”
The idea of a Bolton presidential run seems implausible, fanciful, odd. Other people have used stronger words: “preposterous,” “ridiculous,” “cuckoo.” Bolton has never held elective office, and has never run for office. But he thinks these are unusual times, in which an unusual candidacy might have a place. He himself uses the word “unorthodox”: an unorthodox candidacy, an unorthodox campaign. And he could not be more serious about the idea. In our recent interview, he was mainly careful to use the conditional: If I ran, I would . . . But sometimes he slipped into tenses more certain. And he has no interest in a symbolic, quixotic, or selfish run. “People have said to me, ‘Well, if you ran, you might get more speaking appearances, and you could sell another book.’ Frankly, that’s the last thing on my mind. If I get in, I’ll get in it to win.”
He was born in Baltimore in 1948, to Jack Bolton, a firefighter, and Ginny Godfrey Bolton, a homemaker. Neither graduated from high school. Their son graduated from high school, and went on to Yale College. He wrote in his book, Surrender Is Not an Option, that, as a “libertarian conservative” on campus, he was regarded as a “space alien.” He was also a scholarship kid: and appalled at the rich kids who staged “student strikes,” in protest of this or that. These “strikers” demanded that everyone else do as they did, which Bolton would have none of. “I had an education to get, and the protesters could damn well get out of my way as I walked to class.” Bolton has not infrequently been a conservative among liberals, or leftists. He once compared working at the State Department to being an undergrad at Yale. In our interview, I asked him, “Do the people who staff the Obama administration remind you of your college classmates?” He responded that most of them probably were his college classmates.
A couple of days after this interview, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial that amused Bolton. It referred to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “streets-of-Baltimore grit.” (Pelosi is an adoptive San Franciscan who grew up in Baltimore.) Bolton repeated that phrase with glee: “‘Streets-of-Baltimore grit’!” Both Pelosi’s father and her brother were the mayor of Baltimore. As far as Bolton’s concerned, that family was elite.
His undergraduate degree in hand, he went to Yale Law School, where he studied with Robert Bork, among luminous others. One summer, he was offered two internships: one at National Review, the other in the office of Vice President Agnew. He went with Agnew — who would not fare as well as National Review. Two of Bolton’s fellow students at law school were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. “I remember him as very gregarious, never in class, always talking to someone out in the hallway or in the dining room or something like that. I remember her as very rigid, unfriendly — hard-core left-winger.”
When the first Reagan term came, Bolton went to work for the U.S. Agency for International Development. When he left the agency, his colleagues gave him a souvenir: a dummy hand grenade mounted on a little base. On the base were the words “John R. Bolton, Truest Reaganaut.” That souvenir sits in Bolton’s office today. And he says it has meaning for a possible presidential run: “They gave me that after two and a half years in the bureaucracy. There were a lot of people who were Reaganauts going in, as there are always people who are conservatives going in. But they don’t act like conservatives after they get there. There is a skill to maneuvering the bureaucracy. And I think one argument I could make would be, I’ve never run for office, I’m not a conventional politician, that’s for sure, but I have been in government, and I know how it works. I have actually gotten things done in the government.” Even his critics, who are numerous, would concede the truth of that.
In the second Reagan term, he was in the Justice Department, as an assistant attorney general. One of his jobs was to smooth judicial nominations. Sometimes, the Reaganauts were successful, as with Antonin Scalia. Once, they were spectacularly unsuccessful. About the Democrats’ treatment of Bork, Bolton has just one, pointed word: “Disgusting.” In due course, Vice President Bush was elected president. And Bolton moved to the State Department. National Review published an article about him by William McGurn, who years later became Bush 43’s chief speechwriter. The title of the article was “Jim Baker’s Right-Hand Man.” And McGurn asked, “How does a man who wears Adam Smith ties survive in a Bush administration?” (This administration, remember, was regarded by much of the Right as unconservative, or even anti-conservative.) The answer was, Just fine, thank you. Bolton tells me that he considers Baker “the best secretary of state since Dean Acheson.” He continues, “I say that because he and Bush 41 had an incredibly tempestuous period in history, and they navigated through it with great success.” Bush 41 had only one term. When Clinton came in, Bolton perched at the American Enterprise Institute, the think tank in Washington. He also practiced law — and did some ferocious practicing in November and December of 2000.
This was during the “Florida recount” that pitted George W. Bush against Vice President Al Gore. In the days immediately after the election, Bolton was in Seoul, and Baker — who was appointed to lead the Republican legal effort — called to say, “Get your ass back here.” Bolton was in Florida for 31 days. Later, Donald Rumsfeld would refer to him as “Mr. Hanging Chad.” Bolton thought that chances for success were slim. Traditionally, Democrats are much better at street fighting than Republicans. “We were surrounded by all these labor-union lawyers and criminal-defense attorneys, and I thought, ‘They’re gonna clean our clocks.’ But we won. And that is, I think, almost exclusively due to Baker.”
After W. was sworn in, Bolton went back to the State Department, serving as undersecretary for arms control and international security. His most notable achievement was to lead the diplomatic push for the Proliferation Security Initiative — the program that soon took Qaddafi’s WMD out of business. At the beginning of his second term, Bush nominated Bolton to be ambassador to the U.N. The Democrats blocked him, with the help of a few “weak-kneed Republicans who flutter in the heart.” (Those words were Al Haig’s, spoken to Bolton.) So, Bush gave him a recess appointment. He took obvious delight in his ambassador’s performance. Once, he said to Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, “How’s Bolton doin’? Has he blown the place up yet?” But Bolton’s tenure at the U.N. ended after 16 months, as the recess appointment was expiring. Also, Bolton was growing disillusioned with Bush, Condoleezza Rice & Co.: whose policies, particularly on North Korea and Iran, struck him as Clintonesque.
He returned to the American Enterprise Institute, wrote his book, signed up with Fox News, and became a star of the conservative commentariat: maybe the go-to foreign-policy analyst. He writes up a storm, at least one piece a week. And he writes for a variety of publications. In the first week of December, he had two pieces about WikiLeaks on consecutive days. One appeared in the Guardian, Britain’s foremost left-wing newspaper, and the other appeared in Human Events, the American conservative weekly.
In addition, he has been studying presidential campaigns, in the process of thinking about one of his own. Very few non-politicians have grabbed the nomination of a major party. Bolton knows a lot about Wendell Willkie, the corporate lawyer who was the Republicans’ 1940 nominee. In 1904, the Democrats nominated a New York judge, Alton B. Parker. Eisenhower, of course, had won a world war: a superior credential to the presidency of Columbia University (also on his résumé). How about non-politicians who have run and not been nominated? Recently, in 1996 and 2000, Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher, ran for the Republican nomination. He was promoting free-market ideas that other candidates either disagreed with or shied from voicing. Gary Bauer, a prominent social-conservative activist, ran for the Republican nomination in 2000. Wesley Clark, a general, ran in the Democratic primaries of 2004. But mainly presidential races have been for experienced pols.
Bolton is a strong personality, one of the stronger in our public life. His adversaries call him hotheaded, bullying, and extreme. Someone in the press dubbed him “Lightning Bolton.” The North Korean government paid him the high compliment of labeling him the “envoy of evil.” His admirers call him dynamic, principled, and bracing — a welcome splash of cold water. In my experience, he has a ready laugh, and no end of enthusiasm, no end of vigor. He seems like the kind of person who bounds out of bed every morning, itching to get at the work and challenges of the day. He reads everything, and is informed to the gills. He is almost freakishly articulate. Ask him any question — even one out of left field — and he spits out several paragraphs, as though he has been preparing the answer for days. He talks in an English that smacks of Maryland. The word “water” sometimes comes out like “would-er.” Nixon and Would-er-gate. Words like “three” come out a little bit like “thray.” (This tendency sneaks up to Philadelphia too.) Unlike many a Republican candidate, and president, he says “Democratic party,” rather than “Democrat party.” And I have always found one thing anomalous about his speech: He pronounces “negotiate” like a Brit, “ne-go-see-ate,” rather than like an American, “ne-go-shee-ate.”
His rationale for running? As mentioned above, his belief that Obama has ignored national security, and that this has left the United States in a dangerous position, globally. Our friends and enemies alike are recalibrating their policies, in response to American weakness and drift. Iran swaggers around almost unchecked. In the last two years, the Chinese have been “near-belligerent in their assertion of territorial claims.” As Bolton sees it, Obama is not remotely up to the job of American leadership or world leadership. And “it’s absolutely critical that we have a more informed debate on foreign and national-security policy than we’ve had the last two years.”
I talk back to him a little on one point: Bolton keeps saying that Obama is ignoring foreign policy, when other conservatives might say that he is simply wrong in his judgments on foreign policy. Bolton responds that Obama would prefer to ignore foreign policy, and, when that is impossible, goes ahead and makes the wrong decisions. What’s more, those decisions are overly influenced by his domestic and political considerations. For instance, he orders a surge in Afghanistan — but then imposes a deadline for withdrawal, in order to appease his liberal base. Bolton tells a story about John Kennedy. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, the president talks to Nixon, the former vice president who was his opponent in the election just months before. As one version of the story goes, Kennedy says to Nixon, “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it? I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?” Bolton says that Obama has not had this realization: that foreign policy can dwarf all else.
Bolton quickly says — he says almost everything quickly — “I understand that the economy’s in a mess, and that this is the priority. And I don’t dispute that people are concerned about the state of the economy.” If he runs, he will not be a one-note Johnny (his term), harping on dangers abroad. But he suspects that foreign policy will have much more prominence in the 2012 campaign than it did in the 2008 campaign. The flow of events will see to that. In all likelihood, one of the televised debates in September or October of 2012 will be devoted to foreign policy. And “Obama will be very good at that point at pretending to be the commander-in-chief. We have to have a Republican who will be able to look him in the eye and beat him in that debate. You can have lots of people writing talking points for you, and you can have lots of people writing posts on your website, but, out there, it’s one on one. And if we’re not prepared to win that debate — we’re gonna be in trouble.”
He goes on to say, “I’ve heard over and over that people don’t vote on the basis of foreign policy.” This may be so, Bolton allows. But he makes two points. First, national security has long been more important in the Republican party than in the Democratic party. Second, people look at foreign and national-security policy to find out what qualities a candidate may have — qualities such as leadership, judgment, and perseverance. Foreign policy is a window into character. If you can trust a candidate with foreign policy, you can trust him with a lot.
Okay, but how would Bolton run? He is exploring that now, talking to people about fundraising, communications, and the other elements of a campaign. He is getting hip to the social media, having acquired a Facebook page, doing some tweeting. He believes that there is no clear frontrunner for the 2012 nomination, and that the race is wide open. People may be inclined to this candidate or that, but they are not committed. “There’s no magic out there yet.” Who will catch on, who will supply the magic? Among the people Bolton has been talking to are Tea Party people, “many of whom have been very encouraging, I have to say.” Bolton is a fan of the Tea Party: “I like it because their view of government is essentially the same as mine, and I like it because they’re regular people who, but for the shock of Obama’s radicalism, probably would never have gotten active in politics.” He has not seen such political intensity since the Goldwater campaign. And the “Washington establishment,” he says, looks down their noses at the Tea Partiers, same as they looked down on the Goldwaterites.
Well, couldn’t Bolton start by running for some lower office? “I figure, if you’re gonna do it, you might as well go for the big enchilada. I mean, I’m 62, I’m the right age to run for president, I’m not 32, I’m not going through the cycle. I hope I live to 90, but I’m not going to spend 30 years running.” Does he think he would enjoy campaigning? “I don’t know, that’s a big question. That’s one of the things I’m trying to decide.” An old friend who has been through many campaigns gave him a piece of advice: “You’ve got to say to yourself, ‘You’re gonna get up every morning, if you do this, and enjoy it,’ and if you’re not prepared to say that, don’t do it.” Bolton finds this a wise piece of advice. And he remembers a funny story about Dick Cheney from the 2000 campaign. The candidate and his wife were at an elementary school in Ohio. Lynne Cheney asked her husband whether he would like to read the tots a book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The candidate said, “Why don’t you go ahead and start? You’re the expert in reading.” Bolton is sympathetic: He would not be much for reading to children.
Invited to comment on other potential candidates, he demurs, saying, “I am determined to follow the Eleventh Commandment for as long as I can.” This is the “commandment” popularized by Reagan, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” (Reagan was not terribly attached to this commandment, challenging a sitting Republican president, Ford, no less.) But Bolton knows exactly what he would stand for, whatever the others were standing for. “What’s needed in this next campaign is to say, with clarity, why a pro-individual-liberty, small-government perspective is what most Americans really want.” The perception now is that “we’re the party of no.” But “the party of no is the party of yes to individual freedom, and you’ve got to make that case affirmatively. I don’t think I’m gonna have trouble doing that.”
How about the issue of abortion? Bolton says, “I’m against abortion as a form of birth control, and I basically hold to the Reagan position”: opposition except in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s life. What about entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, and the like? What would he do about those? “I think we’ve got to go after them root and branch.” This would be “brutally hard,” and the Democrats have never played fair about them, but “if we’re ever gonna do it, this is the time to do it.” Bolton then says what he has often said in this conversation of ours: that he is not consumed by the idea of winning the nomination or the presidency, that it is not a be-all, end-all for him, that his self-respect is not bound up in it, so, if he loses, he loses — big deal.
But would it be a big deal? It depends. Some political observers, and not unfriendly to Bolton, have pointed out that people have made poor or hopeless runs for the presidency and been diminished in so doing. John Connally was one of the most impressive political figures in America: governor of Texas, secretary of the Treasury, one of the great talkers and orators ever. He ran for the Republican nomination in 1980, and spent $11 million on the effort — a huge amount of money (whatever it may seem now). He got exactly one delegate, Miz Ada Mills of Clarksville, Ark. She was known as the Eleven-Million-Dollar Delegate. And people made sport of Connally, tried to turn him into a joke. Some say that Gary Bauer never had quite the same standing or influence after he ran for president. And Lou Cannon, the Reagan biographer, tells us that the Gipper used to warn, “Don’t be a Stassen” — Don’t run quixotically or vainly. But then, it’s a free country. And if you think you ought to be president, or have something important to contribute, why not?
If Bolton runs, he will be running with his mustache. On seeing him, Bush 43 once exclaimed, “The man with the mustache!” People often comment on that mustache; Bolton himself is amazed at the interest in it. During the Bork hearings, people often commented on the nominee’s beard, implying something sinister about it. One senator was moved to ask Bork how he happened to grow it. Bolton grew his mustache before he started law school — and he has never shaven it off. “To me, it’s no different from wearing a tie to work every day.” There has not been a mustachioed president since Taft. His immediate predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, was mustachioed too. Bolton looks a little like TR — wire-rimmed glasses are another thing they have in common. And he has some of the same confidence, the same ebullience, the same rough-and-readiness.
Bolton is a thinker and a doer, a conservative and an adventurer, an intellectual and a Tea Partier (at least in spirit). If I may quote myself, I once called him “both enfant terrible and éminence grise.” At the end of our recent visit, I asked him a big question, a question of the hour: “Is America in decline?” “No,” he said, instantly. “I think this administration, if its policies were pursued for an extended period of time, would take us into decline, but there’s nothing wrong with this country that a real president couldn’t cure.”
— Jay Nordlinger is a senior editor of National Review. This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2010, issue of National Review.