The Magazine

Senatorial Discourtesy

From the May 2, 2005 issue: The Foreign Relations Committee plays trivial pursuit.

May 2, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 31 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AFTER A LONG AND DISTINGUISHED career as a lawyer, an arms negotiator, a think tanker, and a diplomat, John Bolton may see his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations hinge on whether or not he was mean in Kyrgyzstan in 1994.

No kidding.

Senate Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee spent much of last Tuesday afternoon shouting down their opponents, gesticulating wildly, interrupting speakers, and making unsubstantiated claims--all of this in an effort to delay a vote on the Bolton nomination. He is unfit for the job, they claim, because over the course of his career Bolton is alleged to have shouted down his opponents, gesticulated wildly, interrupted speakers, and made unsubstantiated claims. Washington at its finest.

The committee had been set to send the Bolton nomination to the entire Senate Tuesday by voting along party lines (10 Republicans, 8 Democrats) to recommend confirmation. With a Republican majority in the Senate, this would virtually guarantee that Bolton would be George W. Bush's next envoy to the U.N. Two Republican senators who had previously expressed reservations about supporting Bolton, Lincoln Chafee and Chuck Hagel, were on board. Democrats on the committee had let it be known that they would employ procedural gimmicks to delay the vote. But committee chairman Richard Lugar, a Republican, was determined to hold the vote, and the White House was confident.

By Friday, however, everything had changed. There had been no vote on Bolton. A third Republican on the committee was nervous about the nominee. The morning papers were filled with reports that one of Bush's former top advisers, Colin Powell, was quietly undermining the president's pick. And there was Kyrgyzstan.

Political scientists wishing to understand what drives voter cynicism ought to get a tape of Tuesday's hearing. Among the many bizarre moments: Barbara Boxer lecturing Dick Lugar on Senate decorum; John Kerry scolding Norm Coleman for citing news reports in debate, then himself citing an item from the New York Times; Christopher Dodd conceding that his objections to Bolton have "nothing to do with substantive disagreements"; and, finally, a spirited debate about whether former Senator Claiborne Pell is dead or alive. (A quick check of www.deadoraliveinfo.com and the Providence Journal suggests the Rhode Island Democrat is still with us.)

The two previous days of hearings, which included hours of testimony from Bolton himself, had not been enough to convince any of the Republicans that they should oppose President Bush's nominee. So Democrats introduced new allegations. Senator Biden read to the committee from a letter written by Melody Townsel, a public relations consultant from Dallas, Texas.

When I was dispatching a letter to AID [the Agency for International Development], my hell began. Mr. Bolton proceeded to chase me through the halls of a Russian hotel, throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door, and genuinely behaving like a mad man. I eventually retreated to my hotel room and stayed there. Mr. Bolton then routinely visited me to pound on the door and shout threats.

Biden continued reading from the letter.

I returned to my project in Kyrgyzstan to find that John Bolton had preceded me by two days. Why? To meet with every other AID team leader as well as the U.S. Foreign Service official, claiming that I was under investigation for misuse of funds and likely was facing jail time. As USAID can confirm, nothing was further from the truth.

Biden finished reading and addressed his colleagues. "That's what she alleges. I don't know if they're all true or not. . . . As I've said in recent days, my staff and other staffs have received numbers of allegations about the nominee and his behavior. They are not substantiated. I emphasize, again, they're only allegations."

That's important. Allegations from the previous two days of Bolton hearings--that Bolton had pressured intelligence analysts or sought to reassign those with whom he disagreed--were not enough to compel any of the committee's 10 Republicans to oppose his nomination. Committee members had had a week to consider that testimony, and both Hagel and Chafee indicated that they were prepared to support Bolton.

(Allegations that Bolton had made an inordinate number of requests from the National Security Agency to see names of U.S. officials mentioned in the agency's intercepts were addressed by Lt. General Michael Hayden, head of the NSA, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on April 14, 2005. "The requests from Secretary Bolton were not of such a number that they came to my attention," Hayden testified.)

But George Voinovich, Ohio Republican, had not attended the previous hearings on the Bolton nomination. He was apparently so concerned by the unsubstantiated allegations made against Bolton that he asked Lugar to delay the vote. "I've heard enough today that I don't feel comfortable about voting for Mr. Bolton," Voinovich declared.

His words stunned his colleagues. "There was a lot of drama when Senator Voinovich announced that he wanted more time," said Senator George Allen, Republican from Virginia and a Bolton supporter, in an interview the following day. "He had not been at all these other hearings and I've been at them. I guess he missed a lot of this."

Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, who has emerged as the Senate's leading voice on U.N. reform, was seated next to Voinovich at the hearing. When Voinovich finished his remarks, Coleman leaned over to speak to his colleague. "I told him that everything that's being said here today by the Democrats, there's another perspective," says Coleman. "I offered to sit down with him and go over the record with him."

The delay could be a problem. Not because Melody Townsel's allegations are compelling. They're not. In the days since she first aired her grievances, more information has come to light. Townsel is a Democratic activist who founded the Dallas, Texas, chapter of Mothers Opposing Bush. Her allegations were immediately challenged and convincingly refuted by four of her colleagues, including Jayant Kolatra, owner of the firm that employed Townsel and a longtime contributor to Democrats.

Kolatra disputed her account of the alleged interactions and offered a possible explanation for her hostility toward Bolton.

Ms. Townsel's recollection of what transpired, ten years later, is impossible to square with the fact[s]. Mr. Bolton was not engaged by our firm to have any contact with her on any issue related to her activities in Kyrgyzstan. In fact, Mr. Bolton later became our legal counsel to represent our interests before the U.S. government in response to Ms. Townsel's attempt to try to grab our contract [for herself]. Her claims against Mr. Bolton make no sense but are consistent with her belligerent attitudes toward others.

Rather, the delay could be a problem because it gives Bolton's opponents at least two weeks to pressure Lincoln Chafee into changing his vote. (In fact, both sides in the debate have begun intense lobbying efforts. A conservative PAC called "Move America Forward" has taken out radio ads blasting Voinovich, and others have launched www.confirmbolton.com.) But the White House is optimistic not just that both Voinovich and Hagel will eventually support Bolton. They believe Chafee will stay on board, even though he is a Republican in a heavily Democratic state and is up for reelection in 2006. According to his spokesman, Steve Hourahan, Chafee will take another look at Bolton.

"He's not going to have any comments about whether he's more likely or less likely to support the nomination," says Hourahan. "He was prepared to support the nominee and vote yes. But he heard more information at that hearing and wants to vet it more completely. If the allegations are actually true, then they'll talk about it. If they're not, it's important to know that, so when Bolton goes to the U.N. he won't have this hanging over his head."

With a committee vote scheduled for May 12, Bolton will have it hanging over his head for the next couple of weeks.

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.