PRESIDENT BUSH was within his rights yesterday to install John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations by recess appointment. Mr. Bolton's nomination has been pending a long time, and a majority of the Senate probably would have voted to confirm him. Yet Senate Democrats denied him an up-or-down vote, holding out for the administration to release more material related to Bolton's past work. Under the Constitution, the president has the power to appoint officers during congressional recesses without seeking Senate confirmation and to have those officers serve through the end of the Congress -- which in this case means until January 2007. Using that power to circumvent the normal advice-and-consent process is politically provocative and should be quite rare. But having thwarted the usual process under which the Senate gets to vote on a president's nominee, it takes a bit of chutzpah for Democrats now to cry foul at Mr. Bush's decision to exercise his other option.
Mr. Bolton, as we have noted before, would not have been our choice for this job. As a State Department official for the past several years, he has been a contentious figure who has made many enemies, a bureaucratic power player who has played for keeps. At a time when the United Nations is facing a momentous period of reform and fallout from the oil-for-food scandal, it would have been wiser to name someone more suitable to the post. Moreover, Democrats are correct in noting that Mr. Bolton, by dint of the recess appointment, will go to the United Nations under less than optimal conditions. An ambassador who lacks the explicit support of Congress speaks less securely for the nation than one who enters the U.N. Security Council with the Senate's blessing. But, again, whose fault is that? Democrats had every chance to muster the votes to defeat the nomination; they couldn't do it. If Mr. Bolton is now heading to New York without the Senate's imprimatur but with a figurative asterisk beside his name, that's only because, having failed to defeat him, a minority refused to lose gracefully.
Mr. Bolton evidently has the president's confidence. Efforts to find factors that would disqualify him have proved less than overwhelming. He has, to be sure, crossed the line a few times in his behavior toward other officials. But most of the objections come down to his strong policy views and hard-charging style. Last week, Democrats pounced on an error in Mr. Bolton's Senate questionnaire, on which he said he had not been interviewed by administrative or criminal investigators in the past five years; he had, in fact, been interviewed at one point by the State Department's inspector general -- a fact the administration says slipped his mind. Like many aspects of Mr. Bolton, it's not flattering, but it doesn't justify denying the president a vote on his choice.
The use of the recess appointment shouldn't have been necessary. The confrontation having taken place, however, we can only hope that Mr. Bolton's tenure proves worthy of the stand Mr. Bush had to take to get him there.