(Click here to view the comic Matt drew for this article.)

Political cartoonists are in the strange position of benefiting when the country suffers. The more absurd the world becomes, the easier it is to draw comics. Over the past seven years, the Bush administration has presented my fellow cartoonists and me with an unforgettable cast of characters: the brooding madman Dick Cheney, the crazed evangelical John Ashcroft, and the sweating and stammering Scott McClellan. But there was a time when one Bush administration character shined brightly above the rest. That was U.N. Ambassador John Bolton.

With his red-faced anger and chalk-white mustache, Bolton presented a position to the United Nations that can only be described as right-of-hawkish. He physically and ideologically resembled Yosemite Sam—a walking, talking (or rootin’, tootin’) caricature sent to make cartoonists’ lives a little easier. So it was a bittersweet moment when Bolton resigned in December 2006. The world was better off, but cartoonists certainly were not.

So imagine my excitement earlier this month when I heard that Bolton would be appearing in Portland, at Pacific University’s 25th annual Tom McCall Forum, to debate “U.S. Foreign Policy Post ’08.” Foreign policy minutiae usually isn’t my idea of fun. I’d rather be hunched over a drawing table, listening to Michael Savage bloviate and spilling ink over the latest scandal involving hookers and/or an anti-gay gay conservative. But Bolton overrides my rational decision-making center—I simply must draw him whenever I can. So I grabbed a pen and notebook and anxiously hopped a bus downtown to catch the festivities. Bolton was set to face off against former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN), who also served on the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group.

The Tom McCall forum is named after the well-respected former governor of Oregon who is said to have loved thoughtful discussion. Which, of course, begs the question: Why was Bolton invited? He is the kind of diplomat who says, “We should not let diplomacy become the objective” as an opener, and goes on to trash any notion that America can accomplish its goals through the United Nations.

A group of panelists culled from local academia asked the duo questions for most of the night. Bolton, whose trademark bluster was on display, sometimes turned to panelists to inform them that “the premise of your question is fundamentally wrong.” After an innocent query about the degenerating state of affairs in the Middle East, he snapped, “If you think it was caused by the Bush Administration, you need to think again!”

Ron Tammen, the director of Pacific’s school of government, offered the best question of the night: “Do you believe it would be legal or illegal under international law for a foreign government to kidnap U.S. soldiers, diplomats, or U.S. citizens, and to subject them to waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and temperature, light and noise abuse designed for the purpose of eliciting information that would, in their opinion, serve the national security interests of their country?”

Bolton responded flatly, “No. I do not think it would be illegal.” As he walked back to his seat a chorus of boos filled the theater. Others, too shocked to boo, looked around and asked the person next to them if Bolton just said what they thought he said. Bolton then rushed back to the podium to clarify: “It would be imprudent, but it would not be illegal.”

While Bolton takes a “safe, legal, and often” approach to torture, he showed even less concern over the controversy surrounding private mercenaries such as Blackwater operating in Iraq. “Our forefathers knew what privatization was about long before we did,” Bolton said. I, at least, was startled by this answer. Had Bolton uncovered secret correspondence between Washington and Jefferson praising international mercenaries? Maybe Washington had seen something he liked in the Hessians. Bolton did acknowledge there should be “some” rules governing how they operate, but then added that the whole issue was “politicized and overblown.”

Hamilton, for his part, didn’t offer any arguments you could even describe as “liberal.” He even thought we should allow torture for the mythical “ticking time bomb scenario” created by Jack Bauer fans. But he espoused a simple agenda with which many Americans now agree: to learn from the Bush era; to restore our image abroad; to strengthen our relationships with allies; and to work to peacefully resolve conflicts. “We are the world’s most powerful nation,” he said, “but America’s ability to accomplish things abroad has never been so limited.”

In the end, both men agreed that the 2008 elections represent a “crossroads” during which Americans can choose two paths. (I always thought crossroads offer three options—or four, if you include turning around and going backwards.) Semantics notwithstanding, the speakers made their point: When it comes to national security, everyone agrees that the 2008 elections will be momentous.

I left confident that no matter what happens in 2008, my profession will be safe for at least four more years. The era of Bolton and Bush may be coming to an end, but, no matter who wins next November, new characters will emerge from the Beltway swamp.

As I walked away, one of Hamilton’s closing lines kept ringing in my head. “We will not savage those who do not agree with us.” Sorry, Lee. That’s just not how we cartoonists roll.

Matt Bors is a nationally syndicated cartoonist with United Feature Syndicate. He has contributed to Campus Progress since its launch.