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The ABCs of character

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 John Bolton was nominated to be US ambassador to the United Nations, he's been described as abrasive, brash, difficult. He's been called 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 be dealt 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.

Now we have a couple of brouhahas that have put the B word back into the recipe. It's transformed the question of leadership style into a question about fitness for duty.

Consider the woes of Harvard's president, Larry Summers. The uproar wasn't entirely because of his remarks about the innate disabilities of women in science. When push came to shove, it was a question of arrogance as much as sexism. On the memorable night the Harvard faculty gave him a vote of no confidence, Summers must have felt like a reverse image of Sally Field at the Oscars: ''You don't like me. You don't like me."

Now it's Bolton. A lot of those whom Bolton apparently ''kicked down" have kicked back. We heard from intelligence agents who claim he tried to dump them for disagreeing. We heard from a foreign aid worker who said Bolton chased her down the halls of a Russian hotel, not out of lust but anger, ''throwing things at me, shoving threatening letters under my door, and generally behaving like a madman."

This elicited a defense from President Bush who described Bolton as ''a blunt guy" who ''isn't afraid to speak his mind." Around Boston, we call this the Larry Summers defense, in honor of those conservatives who recast the Harvard president as a defender of ''free speech." But the question is less about being outspoken than about silencing any opposition.

I grant you that the Bush administration does not belong to the ''Getting to Yes" school of foreign policy. But after giving savvy spinmistress Karen Hughes the job of public diplomacy, why give John Bolton the job of publicly unraveling that diplomacy?

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."

But now I wonder whether there is a little food for thought in Cheney's flip remark. Maybe we have arrived full circle to the original meaning of ''the personal is political." These days harassment is not just sexual, to be outspoken is not an excuse, and, I am glad to say, an equal opportunity abuser may find himself in the soup.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is

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