Originally Published: May 5, 2005 5 a.m.
BOSTON -- And so once more, we dip our ladle into the alphabet soup of character. Only this time the letter that keeps coming up is B for Bully.
Ever since President Bush nominated John Bolton to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, people have described him as abrasive, brash, difficult. They've called him a "serial abuser'' of underlings and a "quintessential kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy.'' Questions about whether he has the T for Temperament to be our diplomat to the world body now have his nomination teetering.
I got into this character cookbook business way back in the 1970s when there was a subversive little motto that said, "The personal is political.'' To a young mother this suggested that the personal decision about who changed diapers and washed dishes said something about the power structure of men and women. To a young journalist, it suggested that issues such as child care and even breast cancer were not just problems to deal with one by one, but also collectively.
It also suggested something about our political leaders. Character was a matter of private as well as public behavior. How our leaders behaved to their families, office staff and underlings said something about who they were and how they would treat the rest of us.
Fast forward to the year when presidential candidate Gary Hart committed character suicide. He dared reporters to follow him and they did ... right into an adultery scandal. For a long time, the character issue focused on the A-word. In fact, character became a code word for sexual fidelity and remained so from D for Donna Rice to M for Monica Lewinsky.
Of course somewhere in the middle of this era we also had A for Anita. Those who believed in Anita Hill thought that Clarence Thomas should have been disqualified from the Supreme Court for sexual harassment. We also had C for Child Care, a trio of mini scandals that disqualified mothers with "nanny problems'' from Cabinet offices. Other letters -- G for Gambling -- have cast a pall over the political virtues of people like Bill Bennett.
Meanwhile we have also had an entire generation of business books proclaiming the value of a more cooperative female leadership style compared to the Me-Tarzan/You-Underling style. But we never did quite get back to the question of whether the abusive, nightmarish, bully boss had a career-ending character flaw.
Being nice is not a job qualification. Laws against bully bosses failed even in California. As for Bolton, Dick Cheney said: "If being occasionally tough and aggressive were a problem, a lot of members of the United States Senate wouldn't qualify.''