The American Interest: To get us started, tell us a bit about your background—home, school and the like.
John Bolton: I come from a working class family in Baltimore, which gave me most of the values I still have now: hard work and patriotism most of all. I progressed through a fairly standard educational route: public schools, college and then law school, after which I practiced law here in Washington. But I’ve always been interested in political philosophy, even in junior high school, and over the years I’ve followed that interest in one way or another. Even when I was practicing law, a lot of what I did was constitutional law. I was one of the lawyers in the Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976, for example—the challenge to the post-Watergate financial reform laws.
And I’ve always been interested in international affairs, too. As a high schooler looking to apply to colleges and as an undergraduate at Yale, too, I considered a career in the Foreign Service. Though I eventually became a lawyer and never entered the Foreign Service, I retained an interest in foreign policy and was fortunate enough to be able to follow through on that, beginning with the Reagan Administration, then in a series of other jobs, and then with both the Bush 41 and Bush 43 Administrations.
AI: What influential persons or books sent a shiver up your spine when you were young?
John Bolton: As for a lot of people in my generation, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I read as a kid, had a big influence on me. But so did Adam Smith, John Locke and Edmund Burke. Also, I was a volunteer in the Goldwater campaign in 1964—my first real lesson in politics. It was a very salutary lesson, too, because Goldwater was humiliated, but that didn’t turn me off politics. It only made me a more determined libertarian conservative. At Yale in the late 1960s, the campus climate was not exactly conducive to conservative thought, and that just hardened my attitude further. I’d say it prepared me well for the State Department in later years.
AI: Let’s talk about the times before the 2000 election for a moment. You were in the Bush 41 Administration State Department, the IO [International Organizations] bureau, right? What did you learn from that and other pre-Bush 43 experiences about the nature of the policy process?