WASHINGTON -- It happens in every administration. Somebody fails to do all the homework or due diligence or whatever and a nominee that might not have been appointed had the vetting not been sloppy becomes an embarrassment.
Bill Clinton ran into the problem several times, including his first two choices to be attorney general, and before him any number of presidents found themselves in awkward confirmation fights over shaky appointments, from the Supreme Court to the secretaries of labor and defense.
Oh, of course there is another reason for confirmation failure -- arrogance, born of the belief that a White House with solid congressional majorities can do about whatever it wants.
In either case, it is a situation that could have been avoided and, in the matter of John Bolton, President Bush's choice for ambassador to the United Nations, it probably should have been. Bolton's chances for ultimate approval suffered a major blow when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, usually among the more civilized and least emotional of upper-chamber panels, delayed sending his nomination to the floor after a tense session that produced reluctance from several majority Republican members, temporarily, at least. They overrode objections of the highly regarded chairman, Richard Lugar of Indiana, to delaying a vote, giving opponents more time to make a case against Bolton.
Bolton seems to have ignored or forgotten the time-honored adage about being careful how you treat others on the way up -- they may ultimately help you make an early descent. It was concern over the development of a pattern of allegedly abusive treatment of underlings over years of public service that provided the impetus for Democratic attacks on his suitability for the U.N. job and for an apparent growing lack of confidence among GOP senators over his appointment.
The latest evidence of this came from an unsolicited letter from a Dallas woman who wrote the committee that Bolton had put "me through hell" during negotiations for a USAID project for Kyrgyzstan, including chasing her through a Russian hotel to berate her. If accurate -- and apparently the allegation has been corroborated by another participant in the project -- this is hardly the image one would expect from a diplomat of Bolton's experience.
But that has been the problem all along with this appointment. Conservatives like his past tough criticism of the United Nations and, always skeptical of U.S. alliances with the world body, think he is just the ticket. Liberals and moderates, however, believe that at a time when the Bush administration needs to reach out to those alienated by its Middle East policies, including the occupation of Iraq, Bolton's appointment sends the wrong message.
That concern alone wouldn't be enough to keep him from being confirmed. So opponents went looking for something that would, as is always the pattern in these cases. Before Anita Hill surfaced, Clarence Thomas was considered a sure thing for quick confirmation to the Supreme Court despite liberal charges that he was unqualified. He barely managed to squeak through the blizzard of sensationalism, true or not, that did some irreparable damage to his reputation.
So it is the little things left in a candidate's wake that cause the problems, little things that someone always finds out about, like trying to get subordinates fired or transferred for disagreeing with you, even when you have no direct responsibility for them. That certainly seems to be what Bolton has done on occasion.
There are other, even superficial things that matter in these cases. With one unconfirmed Supreme Court nominee, it was a stuttering problem that made him appear unsure of himself. With Bolton, it is the news pictures of a stern, mustachioed countenance that seems to authenticate allegations of uncompromising fierceness.
One who has served as long in public life as Bolton is bound to have made a few enemies over policy if nothing else, but the allegations are more serious than that. They encompass personal matters that are deep-seated. Those who don't like him actually dislike him to the point of hatred.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the president, both of whom have worked with him closely, couldn't have been unaware of his irascibility.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.