Not long into John R. Bolton's confirmation hearing yesterday to be ambassador to the United Nations, three women stood up waving pink protest banners and denouncing President Bush's nominee.
Bolton, who sat frozen, his back to the demonstrators, got an unexpected assist from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who called out to the demonstrators as the police removed them: "You need to leave! You need to go away!"
Boxer wanted to heckle Bolton herself.
Most Republicans skipped the hearing, leaving Democrats largely unchallenged as they assailed Bolton's knack for making enemies and disparaging the very organization he would serve.
Boxer led her colleagues with a multimedia assault on the nominee, displaying Bolton's more inflammatory anti-U.N. remarks in a videotape and on a series of posters. "You have nothing but disdain for the United Nations," Boxer charged. "You can dance around it, you can run away from it, you can put perfume on it, but the bottom line is the bottom line."
Bolton once asserted that he wouldn't mind if U.N. headquarters in New York lost 10 floors. After yesterday's confirmation hearing, he probably wouldn't object if a similar fate were to befall the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But whatever anger the questioning provoked in Bolton, he didn't let it show; he replied with mild sentiments, half-hearted excuses and convenient amnesia, but not his legendary temper. He even praised the secretary general, the conservatives' nemesis. "Kofi Annan and I have had a relationship that goes back 16 years, based on mutual respect and friendship," Bolton announced.
Behind this script was a reality both sides understood. With the committee's last potential holdout, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.), saying he was "inclined" to support Bolton, the committee was virtually certain to split along party lines, all but assuring confirmation. The only hope opponents had of derailing the nomination was to provoke Bolton into an outburst that would cost him Republican votes.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) led off with a greatest-hits collection of Bolton quotes: that "there's no such thing as the United Nations," that treaties "are not legally obligatory," that the International Court of Justice is "a pretend court," and how it wouldn't make "a bit of difference" for U.N. headquarters to lose 10 floors.
"I'm surprised that the nominee wants the job that he's been nominated for," Biden observed to chuckles in the gallery.
Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who supports Bolton, was hardly more helpful to his cause. The smiling Indianan asked the nominee to explain the "major flap" over Bolton's fight with an intelligence analyst who thought Bolton went too far in alleging Cuba was making weapons of mass destruction. And Democrats happily filled in details from the committee's investigation in recent days: Bolton's red-faced anger at the analysts and his drive to CIA headquarters to have an intelligence officer reassigned.
The shaggy-haired Bolton stared down at the witness table. He rubbed his eyes. He scribbled. Behind him, his wife was clasping her hands anxiously and staring at the floor, but Bolton did not get riled.
Instead, he tried denial, saying "there is no there there," when asked about pressure put on analysts. He tried challenging the facts ("I don't think you have that quote accurately," he said to Biden, who did indeed have the quote accurately). He asserted that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, just before his death, told Bolton that he agreed with Bolton that the International Criminal Court was a bad idea.
"I have no way to question that, do I?" Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) remarked skeptically.
"Sadly," Bolton replied.
Each Democrat tried to trip up Bolton, but none was as colorful as Boxer. Employing the histrionics that are now the stuff of late-night satire, she wheeled out a dozen charts and proposed that Bolton apologize to the intelligence analyst, whom she described as a "war hero," for calling him "a mid-level . . . munchkin."
Only Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and, to a lesser extent, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) tried to defend Bolton. Allen described Bolton as "the absolute perfect person for the job." Chafee looked as if he were in after-school detention and lacked questions to fill his allotted time.
Biden, Sarbanes and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) repeatedly interrupted the questioning, and Lugar at times lost control. But it was no use: Bolton would not take their bait.
When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said the lengthy hearing gave him plenty of time to think of questions, Bolton interjected: "I've thought of a few things, too."
"I think you're probably wise not to have uttered all the things you were thinking," Obama said.
The gallery broke into laughter at that image. So did Bolton, who will be free to speak his mind again soon when he gets to New York.