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John Bolton Is The Perfect Washington Man


In the good old days of the internet blogosphere, there was a running bit at Jeff Goldstein’s blog Protein Wisdom which provided a name for John Bolton’s prominent mustache – “Regis”, a globe-trotting nuke-loving Hamas-bashing sexually aggressive bon-vivant with lush whiskey-tinged follicles. The image is ridiculous of course, but it is not far from the image the real John Bolton paints of himself in the absurdly entertaining pages of his book, the inaptly named The Room Where It Happened.

First, let me say that I love this book. I love everything about it. It is true unadulterated fan-fic for Bolton lovers everywhere. He is always right. He is always noble. His purposes are always true. Anyone who disagrees with him is an idiot, or possibly worse. Edward from Twilight has more flaws than this iteration of John Bolton, the mustachioed hero who can do no wrong… except to be, at a critical moment, surrounded entirely by idiots.

If you don’t believe me, just read the reviews from others who have welcomed most if not all of the quite profitable books by insiders excoriating the president released in the past several years.

From The New York Times review:

Underneath it all courses a festering obsession with his enemies … The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much. It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged … When it comes to Bolton’s comments on impeachment, the clotted prose, the garbled argument and the sanctimonious defensiveness would seem to indicate some sort of ambivalence on his part—a feeling that he doesn’t seem to have very often.

From The New Yorker review:

Bolton mocks, disparages, or clashes with Steven Mnuchin, Nikki Haley, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, and others, all within the book’s first hundred pages. By the end of the nearly five-hundred-page book, Bolton also criticizes Mick Mulvaney, Jared Kushner, the entire White House economic team, many of his foreign counterparts, and, although he shares their misgivings about Donald Trump, the House Democrats who impeached the President.

This is Washington score-settling on an epic scale. Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, “had no idea what he was talking about.” Haley, who served as the Ambassador to the United Nations, is a self-promoting pol who sucked up to Trump’s family. Mattis, the former Defense Secretary, is a bureaucratic obstructionist who deluded himself into thinking that an “axis of adults” could manage the unmanageable President. Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who would emerge as the great internal enemy during Bolton’s seventeen-month tenure, is an untruthful hypocrite who flatters Trump to his face while dumping on him privately…

The book does, however, amply confirm Bolton’s reputation as a fierce infighter with an inflated view of himself and a willingness to blame others for just about everything. He is clearly a flawed narrator and colleague.

From The Washington Post review:

A veteran bureaucratic infighter, Bolton dishes dirt about everyone he doesn’t like, and it’s a very long list. [After noting his dismissal of Nikki Haley, Michael Flynn, and Jared Kushner] But it’s Jim Mattis who’s Bolton’s favorite punching bag. Every dozen pages there’s another shot at the former secretary of defense . He’s “looking for excuses not to do much of anything” in retaliating against Syrian chemical weapons use; he would “predict gloom and doom when he didn’t get his way” on policy; he used “spite” as a common tactic, prompting Bolton to observe “they didn’t call him ‘Chaos’ for nothing.

Bolton is the hero of nearly every anecdote in the book. Indeed, for a memoir that is startlingly candid about many things, Bolton’s utter lack of self-criticism is one of the book’s significant shortcomings. Nearly every policy discussion is an opportunity for Bolton to say that he was right, people should have listened to him, he knew it would never work, he was vindicated. His only problem is that, having burned so many bridges with this book, Fox News may not give him a future platform to explain how right he is.

Ah, yes, how terrible that would be for the number of American lives saved by not just going everywhere and doing everything that John Bolton would like to do. The totally unsurprising thing is that follows after all these pointed critiques is that many of these same commentators will then move on to “but as unreliable a narrator as he is, as much as he reveals himself to be a venal score-settler, Bolton has revealed a deep and unexpected truth about Donald Trump which must be appreciated!”

Now for all my plaudits, as a book, I have to say this is quite bad. It is dry, convoluted, and catty in a depressingly repetitive way. One of the repeated elements of the book is Bolton self-references. “They said this, then I showed them the error of their ways with this super smart Tweet” makes a frequent appearance. There is little here to indicate success in anything but tweeting during his 18 month tenure – his views are typically ignored or run into the rocks when they encounter the president, and often earlier. After each of these failures Bolton sinks into a passive aggressive funk for a few sentences. It amounts to a chapter by chapter rendition of Seinfeld’s “The Jerk Store”, over and over again.

Bolton’s ways of presenting his ideas would seem rather questionable to others operating without his alpha male acuity. At one point he drafts up a one-page plan, all by himself, to solve all the problems with immigration policy in America. It includes firing not one but two cabinet members. He is astounded and frustrated that no one seems to be super into it. Trump folds the paper up and puts it in his pocket, so now Trump bears the blame for not advancing such well-honed policy perfection. Bolton’s one pager is discarded, and the nation suffers for it.

Bolton’s frequent problem is that the reasoning behind the president’s positions are, in his view, either very silly or very craven. But when placed side by side with what Bolton, Mattis, or other more hawkish members of the team want to achieve, the president’s argument is often far more in line with the priorities of most Americans.

Trump asks repeatedly why the United States is losing so many lives in fighting wars others should fight, and expresses frustration at the mounting financial costs. Bolton quotes Trump saying about Afghanistan: “Another six months, that’s what they said before, and we’re still getting our asses kicked.” In context, Bolton is astonished. In public opinion, it’d be hard to disagree. But then, that puts this position as a craven attempt to win re-election by recognizing the deep unpopularity of Bolton’s position. The audacity.

For a text that has been presumably pored over so much, the book is also rife with odd editorial and factual mistakes, with misspellings of the names of key individuals and at least one anecdote that makes no sense whatsoever with what I know personally to be the truth. Pompeo and other government figures have called him a liar regarding his renditions of particular quotes – I can’t speak to that. But whatever Bolton’s primary approach to compiling notes for this book, relying on recollection and note-taking that never includes a scene where the protagonist/author makes an error is rather unbelievable, even for as perfect a specimen of man as John Bolton.

Bolton closes the book by (what a twist!) citing himself, with a multi-page quote from a book review he wrote in 2014 for “American Review”, a now-defunct Australian publication. He compares himself prior to the quote to Bob Gates, the universally respected former Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and claims that Gates faced slings and arrows “similar to those now directed at me”.

For some reason, Bolton leaves out the portion of that article where he wrote: “Had I been George W. Bush, I would not have picked Gates as defense secretary, and had I been Barack Obama, I would not have kept him.” Bolton then proceeded to lambaste Gates’ entire philosophy of service and duty.

Well. That’s just who John Bolton is.

As I wrote at the time he was hired in 2018, Bolton is a deeply odd, thin-skinned, and snarky figure who succeeded in convincing a surprising number of smart people in Washington that he is somehow serious and statesmanlike. This book and the profitable process by which he came to write it will doubtlessly decrease that number. As a parting shot, it has the temporary satisfaction of score-settling and the happiness brought by a two million dollar advance. But there should be nothing unclear about it: this is a parting shot by a man leaving the room for good.