When John Bolton ’70 LAW ’74 took the podium for his commencement speech at the height of campus demonstrations against the Vietnam War, he was not out to please the crowd. Calling the event “an exercise in ideological self-congratulation,” Bolton laid out the future of American politics for his left-leaning classmates.
“The conservative underground is alive and well here,” he said. “If we do not make our influence felt, rest assured we will in the real world.”
Thirty-five years later, Bolton, who mocked audience hecklers in his speech, still displays a conservatism that is no less controversial. Currently President George Bush’s ’68 nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Bolton’s confirmation has been delayed after three Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unexpectedly declared last Thursday that they needed more time to consider Bolton’s credentials. Despite the administration’s repeated declarations of support, Bolton’s nomination remains in jeopardy.
While Bolton’s supporters in the White House have argued that he would bring the experience and passion needed to reform to the United Nations, Democrats have assailed his hard-right political views and his often inflammatory criticisms of the United Nations. Further criticism has come from several former co-workers, who reported that Bolton routinely bullied subordinates.
But while several of Bolton’s Yale classmates said they remember him as intensely conservative, they do not recall that he was abrasive as some of his current detractors portray him.
“Compared to the persona you see on the news, he was very much a subdued, thoughtful, cordial sort of guy,” Bruce Krueger ’70, one of Bolton’s roommates in Calhoun College, said. “The kind of behavior I’m reading about, doing the work of the administration’s bulldog, that’s out of character for him.”
Bolton arrived at Yale via an unusual trajectory for that time. The son of a fireman, Bolton was raised in a working class Baltimore neighborhood. He won a scholarship to McDonogh, a prestigious Maryland prep school, where he excelled and began his political career as a conservative, running the school’s Students for Goldwater campaign in 1964.
In 1966, Bolton enrolled at Yale and, over the next four years, experienced drastic changes in campus culture. He entered the all-male University as a stalwart supporter of the political status quo, and graduated from a co-ed school embroiled in turmoil. During Bolton’s junior year, 47 students seized control of a building to protest a firing they claimed was discriminatory. During his senior year, indignation over the trial of Black Panther party Chairman Bobby Seale led to demonstrations, clashes with the police and the suspension of two months of classes.
Confronted with a loud liberal majority on campus, Bolton stuck by his conservative beliefs. At the height of the civil rights movement, Bolton questioned the constitutionality of open workplace laws, though he supported desegregation from a public policy standpoint, classmate Charles Jefferson ’70 said. An advocate of engaging in Vietnam, Bolton combined hawkish foreign policy with a critique of big government verging on libertarianism — an ideological stance he has held with little variation throughout his political career.
“I remain convinced that government is not an effective problem solver,” Bolton wrote in an article for the Class of 1970 25th reunion book. “I would still rely on people and markets.”
Though classmates said Bolton did not show the bullying personality his contemporary detractors accuse him of, he did establish himself as a passionate Republican who forcefully promoted his views. A political science major who graduated summa cum laude, his undergraduate career at Yale was immersed in conservatism. Bolton was editor in chief of the Yale Conservative, executive emeritus of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union, and a member of the Yale Young Republicans.
With liberal sentiment against the Vietnam War dominating campus discussion, he had no shortage of opponents, said Burtis Dougherty ’70, a friend of Bolton’s.
“[Conservatives] were nowhere near as vocal and certainly nowhere near as listened to as they would have liked to have been,” Dougherty said.
Bolton’s classmates, liberal and conservative alike, described him as smart, polite and intense in his political beliefs. John Jeffries ’70, who was chairman of the Conservative Party, said Bolton had a blunt debating style, “distinct from schmoozing,” that reflected his current diplomatic approach.
“Some people are more oriented toward getting along with every point of view expressed, and John Bolton has always been more interested in substance,” Jeffries said. “That’s probably why he rubs some people the wrong way.”
Robert Batey ’70, who served as a delegate on the Connecticut Intercollegiate Student Legislature with Bolton, said Bolton’s strength as a debater lay in his forcefulness. Batey recalled that Bolton’s drive made him the most effective member of the delegation during a lobbying period preceding the organization’s officer elections.
Despite Bolton’s forceful personality, Jefferson said he was polite and respectful of other people’s opinions.
“I’d call him a good guy at 19, but who knows at 57,” Jefferson said. “He had opinions, but he wasn’t a bully.”
Though Bolton supported the Vietnam War, he declined to enter combat duty, instead enlisting in the National Guard and attending law school after his 1970 graduation. “I confess I had no desire to die in a Southeast Asian rice paddy,” Bolton wrote of his decision in the 25th reunion book. “I considered the war in Vietnam already lost.”
Bolton entered politics in 1972 as a White House intern for Spiro Agnew and received a political appointment with Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. The posting started a long political career that spanned three presidential administrations and culminated in the controversial appointment as UN Ambassador.
Bob Stein ’70, a fellow political science major at Yale, said that while Bolton’s style may have changed since college, his provocative political positions remain the same.
“I don’t believe his political views have changed in 35 years,” Stein said. “To the extent that consistency is a virtue, he’s a very virtuous person.”