Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton walked Breitbart News exclusively through his blue collar upbringing, explaining what hard work means to him and how he learned to clash with the left growing up, just a day before he hosted a conference call with reporters to announce he won’t run for president in 2016.
Bolton grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where his father was a firefighter and a member of the union. “We lived in a typical Baltimore row house,” Bolton said, noting his neighbors included a police officer’s family and machinist’s family, among other blue collar folks. Bolton didn’t, like some in the political class in Washington today, grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents taught him hard work and discipline—virtues that have stayed with him.
“It’s not like we felt like we were missing anything—that’s just the way we all grew up,” Bolton said.
A big part of it is the DNA that I inherited—my parents were not very typical of people from the Depression-era generation. They hadn’t had a lot of opportunities, but my father went off to World War II—and then came back and that’s where the baby boom generation came from. All those kind of people, the kind of view was they didn’t have it so great but they’d do what they could for their children. That’s why many people say baby boomers were such a spoiled, self-centered generation. But what it’d come down to is the virtue of hard work and discipline and recognizing that there’s nobody out there who is going to give you a hand up—you’re going to have to work for it yourself. That pretty straight up virtues were what was critical for helping me develop self-discipline and work ethic that has been critical ever since.
Bolton said his father taught him some very important lessons as a kid.
“I don’t want to give off the impression we grew up in a rough neighborhood—we did not,” Bolton said.
But my father used to always say: ‘Don’t start fights, but if you get in one finish them.’ I thought that was pretty good advice—and I think a lot of what I learned from my father was how calmly he took pressure and danger. It’s not a fair comparison at all to compare fighting fires with what I do, but he knew what his job was and what the risks were and he took it stride all the time—my mother didn’t so much—but the point is with the danger you’re facing, you’re not going to make yourself any better off by losing your head. I think that was a very important lesson too.
Baltimore, Bolton noted, looked very different when he grew up there than what it does now after decades of Democratic Party control over the city.
“Baltimore in those days was a blue collar, industrial port city,” Bolton described his hometown.
I had occasion to go back and look at this because of the riots over the last few weeks, but I remember when I was a boy growing up in the early 1960s, Baltimore was the sixth largest city in the country—and it was the second biggest port on the east and gulf coasts, second only to New York. Today, it’s the 26th largest city and it’s gone from just under a million in population to 600,000. So while the rest of the country has grown over the last 40 or 50 years, Baltimore has shrunk by 40 percent.
It’s now the eighth largest port on the east and gulf coasts—so it’s gone from sixth to 26th and second to eighth. A lot of that is because the industrial strength of the city has been gutted—industries have moved elsewhere. But when I was growing up it was very much a blue collar kind of place. When the Colts beat the Giants, for example, in the 1958 NFL championship—which I watched on TV—the “”Greatest Game Ever Played,” we were really thought it was great to beat those fancy pants New Yorkers.
A profile the Baltimore Sun did of him back in 2005 lays out how Bolton’s father, Jack, tried to register to vote as a Republican—but the city clerk wouldn’t let local employees do so.
“Though a member of the firefighters union, Jack Bolton was also a Republican. Friends remember hearing about the elder Bolton trying to register to vote as a Republican but being told union members couldn’t be Republicans. After some back and forth, a compromise was reached: Jack Bolton, a Goldwater supporter, could register as an independent,” wrote the Sun’s Stephanie Desmon and JoAnna Daemmrich.
Asked about it, Bolton confirmed the story was true—at least that’s what his father told him.
“When he went to register, he worked for the Fire Department—and he wrote down on the form what’s your occupation, firefighter for the City of Baltimore,” Bolton told Breitbart News.
He registered as a Republican—and the clerk handed it back to him and said look there’s a mistake here. My father asked what the mistake was—and the clerk said you’re a city employee, you can’t register as a Republican. It was an incredible story—I wasn’t there, but I heard it from my father and it kind of got better as the years go by if you know what I mean, but I ultimately they compromised and he registered as an independent.
Bolton went to public school in Baltimore up until the seventh grade, when he applied for—and got in via a scholarship—to the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland.
“This was a famous thing in Maryland at the time—McDonogh was at that time an all-boys school and it was semi-military in the sense that the boys all wore uniforms and stuff like that,” Bolton said.
But they used to advertise a scholarship test on the TV and because it was a prestigious thing my mother wanted me to take the test and I did and we were interviewed—they even interviewed my parents, and I got a scholarship and that’s where I started in the seventh grade. It’s still to this day a very premiere kind of preparatory school for college. Obviously that taught me a lot more that if I hadn’t won the scholarship, passed the test, and all the rest of it, I wouldn’t have benefitted from it.
The McDonogh School, which was named for John McDonogh—a man who grew up in Baltimore in the 1800s but moved to New Orleans and bequeathed his estate partially to the city of Baltimore when he died in 1850—is a prestigious school with several notable alumni.
“It was founded by a guy who was born in Baltimore but made his money in New Orleans before the Civil War, and he left his very sizable estate jointly to Baltimore and New Orleans to form public schools for poor people,” Bolton said.
Baltimore already had a public school system so that’s how they created McDonogh. But a lot of the schools in New Orleans were really built with McDonogh’s money. It’s not really unusual if you look at Baltimore, McDonough—founded by the bequest of a rich business guy, the Enoch Pratt Free Library which the city eventually took over. But founded by money from a rich businessman, the Peabody Conservatory—one of the most famous institutions—same sort of thing. They all came from relatively humble beginnings but these were really concrete examples of what they could achieve.
The Baltimore Sun’s 2005 profile of Bolton’s beginnings noted that the then-future U.S. ambassador to the United Nations started his political sparring with the political left right there at McDonogh.
“History teacher Marty McKibbin used to linger over lunch with some of his favorite students at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, then a military academy complete with buttoned-up uniforms, talking about the war in Vietnam long before much of the rest of the nation was paying attention,” Desmon and Daemmrich wrote. “One of McKibbin’s most frequent sparring partners in the mid-1960s was a young man named John R. Bolton, a scholarship student from Southwest Baltimore who was his teacher’s political opposite.”
The piece noted that Bolton and his friends used to call the teacher “Mao”—a reference to Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist leader. They even quoted the old teacher, McKibbin, as recalling the battles with Bolton in the classroom: “The students then were conservative, much more than they are now, but John went beyond conservative. His views then are very much in keeping with the Bush administration now, even though he still goes a bit beyond.”
Bolton confirmed it all in his interview with Breitbart News, and noted that he began getting involved in politics—running a Barry Goldwater campaign effort at McDonogh.
“We used to call him ‘Mao’ behind his back, but it was really in the ninth and tenth grades that I became fascinated with political philosophy,” he said.
I loved John Stuart Mill and reading about the American revolution—and that’s what got me into the [Barry] Goldwater campaign when I was 15, stuffing envelopes and knocking on doors. I ran Goldwater’s campaign at McDonogh—but we lost, I think it was 162-149 or something like that but we still lost. But we were a lot closer than the national election.
From McDonogh, Bolton got into Yale—where he’d get both his undergraduate and law degrees with a brief stint in between where he joined the National Guard.
“I certainly didn’t have any relatives who made any contributions or were alumni or anything—I wasn’t an alumni’s son or anything like that,” Bolton said of his undergraduate experience at Yale as an outsider.
The application process was pretty straightforward—you send in your transcripts, you take the SATs, there was no compulsory interview in those days but I went up and visited a guy who had been at McDonogh two years ahead of me who had gotten in. I played soccer at the time and they liked that, but it was the payoff I think for all the hard work that my parents had urged me to do. When I got there, there were obviously a lot of rich people there and what not—that didn’t bother me because I figured I had gotten there on my own.
They may have gotten there some other way, but in terms of what came next it was a wonderful experience. But this was the late 1960s, and this place was very liberal. So while I’d find myself in my studies, I did a lot of political stuff too—because the environment I was in was hardly conducive to this sort of thinking.
He also worked his way through school while he was there because his parents didn’t have the money to pay for Yale.
“The way they did the financial systems is I had scholarship for part of it, and I took out a loan to pay for part of it—and that was to pay for room and board and that stuff,” Bolton said.
But they also knew that most scholarship kids—and again, it was all male in my first three years there—didn’t take a lot of money from their parents so they had what they called bursary jobs. In the first year as freshmen, we cleaned the tables in the dining halls and then in the next three years they were research jobs and things like that—stuff you worked at 10-12-14 hours a week to earn some money.
Politics dominated campus life, too, Bolton said—and liberals wanted to “politicize everything.”
“During the late 60s, the big issue was obviously the war in Vietnam—but what was most troubling was how the students from the left wanted to politicize everything, whether you ate granola for breakfast or whether you attended classes when they wanted to strike. Everything became politicized and I just thought that was outrageous in and of itself—but it all centered around the Vietnam war and all of that,” Bolton said.
When he graduated, he joined the National Guard and spent a four-month stint at Fort Polk in Louisiana.
“That’s where I ended up growing my mustache, because in basic training you had obviously a very close-cropped haircut—in basic training they wouldn’t let anybody grow mustaches,” Bolton said. “In AIT, it was called—Advanced Individual Training—some companies allowed the trainees to grow mustaches, but my company commander didn’t. So when I got out, I figured what the heck—I’ll grow a mustache—and I just never changed after that.”
After coming back and spending some time working for a conservative alternative alumni association, Bolton plunged back into Yale as a law school student. He shared an apartment with Clarence Thomas, a young liberal who would eventually become a conservative and become a member of the United States Supreme Court. A year ahead of him in his Yale Law School class were Bill and Hillary Clinton, and among his professors were Robert Bork—the conservative who would go on to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, but get shot down by Congress—and Ralph Winter, the eventual judge on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The law school was a very liberal place—in some respects more liberal and more decidedly political than college—but there were actually a few clandestine Republicans in the law school. Bob Bork was one of my teachers for anti-trust law,” Bolton said.
Ward Bowman, who was actually not a lawyer but an economist—the first economist, I think, to have tenure at an American law school. There’s many more since then, but he was the first one. Then Ralph Winter, who I was a research assistant for—and whom [Ronald] Reagan later appointed to the Second Circuit. There were people who were philosophically congenial, but probably the most interesting relationship was Clarence Thomas—who was a classmate of mine. He and I shared kind of a garden apartment arrangement in married student housing at the time—he lived on the first floor and I lived on the second floor. We got to know each other and became friends—he describes that in his book My Grandfather’s Son.
About Thomas, Bolton said he was still a liberal when they met—but Bolton always knew that he’d become a conservative one day because of the blue collar upbringing Thomas, like him, had.
“Back then, he had just come out of Holy Cross—and he was still pretty radical,” Bolton said.
We used to talk about things and it became clear—and this comes through if you read his book, his grandfather and grandmother raised him because his father had run away and his mother wasn’t up to the job or whatever—but his grandfather had basically run a one-person small business. He used to tell Clarence that the only you’re going to get ahead is to work and I can’t pull any strings for you. What was amazing was that the way his grandfather looked at life was not all that different from the way my father looked at life.
We didn’t come from rich backgrounds, and to get ahead you had to pretty much do it on your own. It certainly didn’t affect Clarence’s personal habits—his sense of discipline, he was always a very hard worker—but it was only later in life that he came to appreciate that those are really conservative values. He wouldn’t say this—at the time, he would still say he left law school as a liberal. I didn’t think that’s where he was going to end up, and of course he didn’t.
Winter, for whom Bolton served a research assistant, made a profound impact on the way he thinks—especially on campaign finance.
“He is the guy who basically derived the constitutional theory that money is speech—and when I got out of law school, he and I and a couple other people basically put together the challenge to the Watergate finance laws that became Buckley against Valeo, and had significant parts of the Watergate campaign finance laws were declared unconstitutional,” Bolton said.
That’s also the basis from which, down through the years, Citizens United also came. I think as of now, what’s left of the post-Watergate campaign finance reforms is in rags and tatters and completely irrational. No sane person would write a legal system that looks like this—and what I would favor, and what I favored at the time of Buckley against Valeo which was decided in January of 1976 right in the middle of that election year, is I’d repeal all these limits. I don’t favor any contribution limits, I don’t favor any expenditure limits. The only thing I think you need is disclosure and let the people decide. They don’t care where the money comes from—it’s not for the puritans of common cause to try to eliminate it.
He knew Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham back in Yale Law School and said they were just as liberal as they are now. “I don’t remember if we had any classes together, but I thought at the time she was a radical—she was clearly a radical in law school—and the way you are back in law school or graduate school, that’s pretty much the way you turn out to be,” Bolton said. “So I don’t believe when people say she’s trying to get to the left of Elizabeth Warren—she doesn’t have to get there, she’s already there.”
Bill, on the other hand, Bolton said “was a very nice guy” who “always seemed to be in the lounge sipping a cup of coffee shooting the breeze.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t drinking buddies with either one of them, but the law school is a pretty small place—there are about 160 people there so you generally knew who people were,” Bolton said.
From law school graduation in 1974, Bolton became an associate at Covington & Burling—a top notch D.C. law firm—before joining the Reagan administration and having some back and forth between Covington and the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations in both the Justice and State Departments.
He served as a senior research fellow for American Enterprise Institute (AEI) before going on to be appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. He left the Bush administration to retake his spot at AEI afterwards, and then went on to become one of the national leaders pushing for strong, conservative foreign policy positions.