The Magazine

Second Time's a Charm?

George Voinovich's change of heart gives U.N. Ambassador John Bolton another shot at confirmation.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By FRED BARNES
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It was a warm weekend day in mid-July when, Republican senator George Voinovich of Ohio says, "it came to me." He was back in Cleveland, his hometown, taking a walk with his wife Janet in the neighborhood where they'd lived for 40 years. "You know," he said, "I've been thinking about John Bolton." He said this out of the blue since they hadn't been discussing Bolton, the American ambassador to the United Nations. "I've watched his performance. I think he's doing a good job in a tough place." War had just broken out between Israel and Hezbollah, he noted--all the more reason to have a U.N. ambassador stay in his post for the "long haul." And it was important to have someone with an institutional memory. "John knows where the bodies are buried. He knows the commitments people have made."

This was an important moment, maybe not historic but surely unusual. Voinovich had been the catalyst for the defeat of Bolton's nomination to the U.N. post in 2005. Without his unflinching opposition, Bolton most likely would have been confirmed. As it was, President Bush had been forced to give Bolton a recess appointment (it runs out next January). Voinovich had had no political reason for opposing Bolton, no need for a political boost. He'd been a popular mayor of Cleveland for 10 years and Ohio governor for 8 more. Now, at 70, he's as safe in his Senate seat as any Republican in Congress. True, he had been lionized by the press as a man of impressive independence and courage for his role in blocking Bolton. But that just made it harder for him to do what he was doing as he walked with his wife: change his mind. For certain, he would win little media approval by now backing Bolton's confirmation.

Voinovich asked his wife what she thought, as he often does. She, too, believed Bolton had not been the bull in a china shop at the U.N. that his foes had predicted. Nor had he been a freelancer, promoting his own foreign policy ideas rather than the Bush administration's. Voinovich then called Jeannie Siskovic, his foreign policy staffer back in Washington. "You know, I feel exactly the same way," she told Voinovich. A few days later, an article by Voinovich appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post under the headline "Why I'll Vote for Bolton." His fears about Bolton had not been realized. "My observations are that while Bolton is not perfect, he has demonstrated his ability, especially in recent months, to work with others and follow the president's lead by working multilaterally," the senator wrote. Voinovich had told few in Washington of his change of heart. So the piece was a major surprise--to Karl Rove, the White House political chief, for example. Rove had talked to Voinovich repeatedly about Bolton and believed he'd made no progress toward changing the senator's mind. He learned of Voinovich's new take on Bolton when he read his morning paper.

Voinovich's switch had the same impact as his original opposition, only in reverse. It made the renomination of Bolton viable. By itself, it meant that confirmation was now likely, though not certain given the level of Democratic opposition and the vagaries of Senate politics. Bolton has near-unanimous support among Republicans. One undecided senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, called Bolton last week, chatted for 20 minutes, and promised his vote.

Over the past year, Bolton has won the strong backing of Jewish and pro-Israel groups, or, to be precise, stronger backing. They give Bolton credit--well-deserved credit--for engineering the 1991 repeal of the U.N. resolution declaring Zionism to be racism. He was assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs at the time. Last month, I went with Bolton when he spoke to a gathering at the New York office of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. It was a lovefest. One participant told me he wished Bolton could be prime minister of Israel. He didn't appear to be joking. The pro-Israel groups have pressed Democratic senators in particular not to block Bolton's confirmation. They expect Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, one of Bolton's harshest critics, to vote no on Bolton but to decline to join the filibuster that Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut is eager to organize.