Colin Powell, superstar: will America’s top general trade his uniform for a future in politics?
Steven V. Roberts
If each candidate in last year’s presidential election had picked his ideal running mate, all three might have chosen the same person: Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As an Army officer for the past 35 years, Powell has scrupulously discouraged all political talk; even his party preference remains top secret. But the general will retire from military service at the end of September, and that event has stirred a fever of calculation and speculation unrivaled in Washington since Dwight Eisenhower was courted by both parties after World War II.
If he decides to enter politics, Powell could become another Eisenhower, a military hero who floats above partisanship and taps into mankind’s oldest myths about the virtues of the warrior-king. According to a U.S. News survey, a Republican Powell would defeat Democratic President Clinton by 42 percent to 38 percent in a head-to-head election held today. In a three-way race, he would win 31 percent of the vote, Clinton 30 percent and Perot 24 percent. Even more striking, 66 percent approve of the way Powell is handling his job as the nation’s chief military officer, and only 7 percent disapprove. Clinton’s job approval rating is 44 percent, and his disapproval rating is 49 percent.
These, of course, are highly preliminary results. But analysts in both parties agree that Powell is a political tidal wave waiting to happen. There is no one else like him: a black soldier who can appeal to constituencies across the political spectrum and shatter old assumptions and alliances. But he is taken so seriously not only because of who he is and what he has done. In three important areas, many Americans view him as the right man for the times.
First, Powell is retiring at a time when a growing number of Americans are disillusioned with government. But the military stands in singular counterpoint to that disillusionment. It has rebuilt itself since the debacle in Vietnam and now commands the respect of most Americans. And Powell, after countless hours displaying his mettle and his medals on national television, symbolizes the qualities many voters want–and are not now getting- -from their representatives. In the U.S. News poll, almost 3 out of 4 respondents identified Powell as a “strong leader” who “gets things done.” Says Neil Newhouse, a Republican consultant: “The perception of his strength plays directly into the frustration voters have that nothing ever happens in Washington.”
Second, the end of the cold war has left Americans uncertain about how to define their vital interests abroad and when to use force to advance them. By almost 3 to 1, respondents in the U.S. News survey think Powell, who has held a series of military and civilian national-security posts over the past 20 years, would do a better job than Clinton in foreign affairs. A month before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Powell wrote notes anticipating German unification and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and identifying two areas where U.S. troops might still fight: the Persian Gulf and Korea. The vision of a smaller military he outlined in the notes–a 525,000-strong Army and a 10-12 carrier Navy–laid the foundation for shrinking the military and helped keep the Pentagon ahead of efforts to cut defense spending.
Finally, Powell is a living embodiment of what Americans want to believe about their country: that it still is a land of opportunity, that the old-fashioned virtues of self-help and self-reliance remain the surest guides to success. In an era when violence and poverty depress the national spirit and defy obvious solutions, this son of Jamaican immigrants offers hope to the underclass without unnerving the middle class. By more than 2 to 1, Americans think Powell would do a better job than Clinton in fighting crime and drugs, and by a slightly narrower margin they prefer the general to the president in dealing with race relations.
Erasing the color line. Significantly, however, Powell’s race is a minor factor in his political profile: Blacks view him slightly more favorably than whites do, while whites are a bit more likely to want him to run for president. Unlike other black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, Powell is more soothing than strident, a man who defies stereotypes and “causes whites to re-evaluate some of their attitudes toward race,” says David Bositis, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Political Studies.
For all these reasons, Powell is Topic A in the Washington gossip mill. During a party at Powell’s house at Fort Myer, Va., earlier this year, Republican consultant David Welch approached Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, a former chairman of the Democratic Party. “You can leave right now,” Welch teased Brown. “I’m working on Colin–he’s a Republican.” Brown grabbed the general’s arm and replied: “No man, he’s on our side; we’ve got him.” Powell’s reaction: “I’m getting out of here.” Michael Powell, the general’s 30-year-old son, jokes that his father owes him a fee because he spends so much time collecting business cards from people “who want to be part of his campaign, when and if it happens.”
Leaving home. Powell won’t answer the “when and if” question immediately. Right now, he’s trying to adjust to civilian life, moving to the fashionable Washington suburb of McLean, Va., even before his retirement. One day, he jokes, when he was unpacking boxes and something didn’t work, he was tempted to call the post engineers to come fix it. But his new house is not on post, and there will be no post engineers in his new life. In an interview with U.S. News, he talked about missing the sense of “family” that he will leave behind: “Soldiering is about people in the same value system, the same cultural system. You go from one Army post to another, you might as well have been at the last one. You immediately fit in. And so it’s essentially breaking that mold and putting on something new.”
For now, the general’s plan is to make enough money on top of his $83,000-a-year Army pension to assure his future. The $6 million deal he signed this summer to write his memoirs drew big headlines and some criticism from Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, who complained: “This is a more audacious case than usual of someone profiting from public service.” It was a glimpse of the enhanced scrutiny Powell can expect if he enters politics, but he brushes it off, refusing to confirm the size of his contract and saying only that his publisher “was a willing buyer.” In addition, he is being marketed on the lecture circuit at $60,000 an appearance, and friends say he has more than two dozen offers to serve on corporate boards.
At age 56, Powell has time to make a fortune, then return to government. “I am feeling older every year, every day,” he told U.S. News, “but I’m not exactly the Ancient Mariner yet. And I suspect I have another 15 years of service.” But that service need not be in elected office. Powell often refers to major cabinet officers as “the big guys,” and his role model may be George C. Marshall, not Dwight Eisenhower. “He wants to be able to say, `I can be a gentlemanly secretary of state, I can afford it,’ ” says his cousin, J. Bruce Llewellyn.
In fact, the flap over his book contract highlights something about electoral politics that deeply disturbs Powell: the invasion of privacy. Says Michael Powell, a law clerk for a federal judge: “It’s a frightening prospect.”
The elder Powell also worries that his military experience, with its clear rules and rigid command structure, is not good preparation for the messiness of political life. “I only have to do so much compromising here,” he admits. “There comes a time when I can just say, `Do it!’ ” He slaps his desk for emphasis.
Powell also knows that if he decides to run for office, he probably will never be as popular as he is right now. Voters still view him through the rosy haze of victory, and he has not yet been forced to take positions on controversial issues ranging from abortion to taxes. When he received an honorary degree from Harvard last spring, some protesters turned their backs, objecting to his stance against gays in the military. The general charmed the crowd, but the demonstration was only a foretaste of what could lie ahead. In his interview with U.S. News, Powell acknowledged that his stratospheric poll numbers do not reflect reality: “There are lots of people who might have a favorable view of me who would instantly have an unfavorable view as soon as I had to start taking domestic positions.”
Some political pros wonder whether Powell, or any military figure, can make a good politician under modern conditions. “The hardest thing is that they no longer have that aura,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “Once they take off the stars and the cap, a stupid answer is still a stupid answer.” Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower’s biographer, says that Ike was a terrible candidate when he started campaigning in 1952, but he was saved by the fact that “there weren’t any TV cameras there”–a luxury Powell would never enjoy.
Michael Powell points up a paradox in his father’s life: A general is not just a commander, used to obedience from his troops; he is also a servant who leaves the “ultimate responsibility” in the hands of civilian political leaders. Taking that responsibility on himself would give Powell “some trepidation,” says his son, because political life inevitably means “compromising some things you feel deeply about.” Still, says Ambrose, Powell might be persuaded by the same argument that convinced Eisenhower to run in 1952: “There’s no way in the world you won’t be worried about the country’s future. So wouldn’t you be in a better position as a decision maker than as a commentator?” Moreover, adds Ambrose, activists like Eisenhower and Powell have a “lovely fantasy” about retiring “and getting a fishing pole,” but they don’t usually mean it: “These guys want to stay at the top.”
Bumper sticker. If Powell eventually does decide to enter politics, his first decision will be to choose a party. In 1964, as he tells the story, he was stopped by a white cop in rural Georgia for displaying a Lyndon Johnson bumper sticker–the last known evidence of his political leanings. Since then, Powell has worked largely for Republican administrations, but his son Michael is not sure that his father even has a clear partisan preference.
By about 2 to 1, however, voters identify Powell with the Republican Party, and he would be a more formidable candidate for the GOP, combining that party’s traditionally conservative base with a healthy chunk of black voters–up to 50 percent, estimates Bositis, compared with 11 percent for George Bush. But Powell has resented recent Republican attitudes toward civil rights and was particularly perturbed over the Willie Horton ad in Bush’s 1988 campaign that played on antiblack fears.
The best political description of Powell is probably pragmatic centrist. Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Brookings Institution, compares the general with progressive Republicans such as Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island and moderate Democrats such as Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. Another analogy is to Ross Perot: Both are seen as practical men who have run large organizations successfully. But while Perot is an outsider who feeds on public discontent with government, Powell is an insider who can make the system work.
Indeed, part of Powell’s appeal is the possibility that he can apply some of the lessons the post-Vietnam military has learned– about education and training, about individual initiative and responsibility, about accountability and leadership–to the country’s seemingly intractable problems. “What is it that we give young men and women when they come in that might be lacking outside?” he asks, sounding a theme that could become Powell’s stump speech someday. “It’s some structure, expectations, caring, role modeling, recognition, reward, punishment–meaning there are consequences for poor behavior and not meeting standards. And then all the help in the world to meet those standards.”
One of the most striking aspects of the Army’s success–and one that is close to Powell’s heart–is the fact that the force has improved dramatically at the same time it has worked to improve its treatment of minorities. Powell, says Larry Korb, “symbolizes the fact that the military has dealt with the problem of integration better than any other institution.” He has made a special effort to serve as a role model for young blacks, giving hundreds of interviews and speeches with a single, simple message: Rely on yourself, just like I did. As he told Ebony magazine: “I’ve made myself very accessible to the black press and I do that as a way of just showing people, `Hey, look at that dude. He came out of the South Bronx. If he got out, why can’t I?’ “
Reluctant warrior. Ten or 15 years ago, a professional military man, and a Vietnam combat veteran at that, would never have been seriously considered for the presidency. But Powell is not one who evokes the smell of napalm in the morning: His close friend, former Defense Department official Richard Armitage, says the general is a “reluctant warrior,” well known for his determination to avoid future Vietnams, where troops are sent to die by politicians who have no clear objective in mind.
Powell’s most serious conflict with the Clinton White House, in fact, has been over his reluctance to use force in Bosnia, which flows out of his most deeply held principle: “The use of force is ultimately a political act, not a military act.” If force is used, Powell insists, the political objective must be clear and the resources available must be sufficient to accomplish the mission. Powell strongly warned the White House that air power alone cannot end the Bosnian civil war and that pacifying the country would require many thousands of American ground troops. In his interview with U.S. News, Powell said sharply: “I have not allowed myself to be coerced … to provide very, very cheap [solutions] that look neat but won’t accomplish the intended purpose.”
Powell also is growing uneasy at the administration’s deepening involvement in Somalia, which he says has moved beyond a purely humanitarian mission to one that is “clearly quite different.” And while he says he is “comfortable” with Clinton’s budget cuts, in fact he feels they will leave the military vulnerable, with not “a whole lot left over” if it were forced to fight two regional flare-ups simultaneously. He clashed openly with the White House over allowing gays to serve in the military.
Serving a president who did not appoint him and does not share many of his basic values has not been easy for Powell. But by all accounts, the president and the general have forged a cordial relationship, and Powell successfully steered Clinton toward his preferred successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili.
Smooth operator. Powell, as Clinton has learned, is a formidable bureaucratic foe who knows how to manipulate Congress, the media, interest groups and public opinion. He is totally at ease in front of a camera and especially shrewd in the ways of modern media. Speaking once to the National Defense University, he warned his audience of officers: “You can win the battle or lose the war if you don’t handle the story right.”
But his penchant for manipulation can sometimes get him in trouble. Powell talked extensively to Bob Woodward, author of The Commanders, an account of the run-up to the gulf war, and a number of lawmakers were amazed and annoyed to read that Powell had privately preferred a policy of “containment” in the region rather than a frontal assault on Iraqi troops in Kuwait. A Senate committee summoned him for a closed-door session, demanding to know why he had confided in Woodward and not in them.
Despite his enormous popularity and all his talents, it is hard to imagine a run for the presidency that would meet all of Powell’s military criteria: He can never be assured of overwhelming force, much less victory. But if Powell decides that the Clinton presidency is a failure and the country needs him, he might be willing to put his caution aside and risk an attack. Win or lose, that would change the face of American politics.
U.S. NEWS POLL
THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Colin Powell is a towering presence on the American political
landscape, garnering more public esteem than other major figures.
HEAD TO HEAD
American voters who would vote in the next presidential election
COLIN POWELL 42 pct.
BILL CLINTON 38 pct.
HEAD TO HEAD TO HEAD
American voters who would vote in the next presidential election
COLIN POWELL 31 pct.
BILL CLINTON 30 pct.
ROSS PEROT 24 pct.
Americans who have a favorable view of:
COLIN POWELL 62 pct.
BILL CLINTON 49 pct.
ROSS PEROT 45 pct.
BOB DOLE 43 pct.
In a deeply cynical, antigovernment age, Colin Powell has achieved something extraordinary: According to a U.S. News poll, he leaves office with an extraordinary 66 percent of Americans approving the way he did his job and few holding it against him that he is a Washington insider. Other findings:
72 pct. see him as a strong leader
70 pct. say he gets things done
69 pct. see him as honest and trustworthy
71 pct. say he, rather than Clinton or Perot, would do the best job
58 pct. say he’d do best on foreign affairs
49 pct. say he’d do best on race relations
48 pct. say he’d do best fighting crime
51 pct. of Perot voters prefer Powell to Clinton
Powell has no glaring problems in any demographic group, and his approval rate never falls below 55 percent in any group. But his strongest supporters are Republicans (especially men), those earning more than $60,000, blacks, those with college educations, Northeasterners and Southerners.
36 pct. say he should not run for president, compared with 37 pct. who say he should, and one of the groups most opposed to his bid is African-Americans
38 pct. of Republicans would support Dole in a GOP primary today, compared with 26 pct. for Powell and 21 pct. for Jack Kemp
63 pct. of Democrats would support Clinton in a Democratic primary today, compared with 17 pct. for Powell
13 pct. say he’d do the best job handling the economy, compared with 46 pct. for Perot and 25 pct. for Clinton
41 pct. of independents support Clinton;
31 pct. support Powell
32 pct. aren’t sure Powell understands their problems; an additional 20 pct. think he does not understand their problems
The greatest skepticism about Powell running for president is held by Democrats (especially women), older voters, less educated voters, less affluent voters, Midwesterners and Westerners. U.S News poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted by Celinda Lake of Mellman-Lazarus–Lake and Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group Aug. 29-31, 1993. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.1 percent.
Percentages may not add up to 100 because some respondents answered “Don’t know.”
RELATED ARTICLE: `I talk to all of America’; Powell on Powell
During an interview in his Pentagon office last week, Gen. Colin Powell discussed his past and his future with U.S. News Senior Writer Steven V. Roberts and Pentagon Correspondent Bruce B. Auster. Excerpts:
On his high poll numbers. You can’t compare whatever ratings you get for me truly with the ratings of any other figure, because I’m somewhat shielded [from] the abuse and the hurly-burly and the tussle of normal political life.
On the military’s new image. I think by the middle ’80s, notwithstanding $600 toilet seats and some other claims that the military was too black, too minority, not well educated and [the] lowest part of society … the American people started to sense that, hey, maybe these folks are quite good. Maybe their leaders are reasonably competent. Maybe it isn’t as bad as people have been telling us.
On drugs and crime. I’ve been very outspoken on drugs. I tell lots of stories about how we deal with drugs in the military through testing and through a zero-tolerance attitude, which we can do in the military. I’m not sure you can do it in a school system somewhere in one of our big cities. We have the advantage of military law and regulation, and we throw you out. But you can’t throw them out of a big city.
On young blacks. If they don’t feel they have a chance, then all is lost. And even though they are trapped in some structural situations that are hard to break out of, they’ve got to try and break out of it. They have no choice. They can’t just sit there and go down with it. And so the message I give to young people as I talk in high schools essentially says, “Do not let the fact that you’re a minority or that you come from a different background or that you are trapped structurally somewhere serve as an anchor to keep you down. You’ve got to swim against it, you’ve got to climb against it.” The only thing I can do is tell them to reach down inside themselves.
On high-school ROTC programs. All you have to do is send this major or lieutenant colonel and a couple of sergeants into a school anywhere and put some uniforms on these kids; that’s structure. You put them all in a uniform, they all look alike. That takes care of the Nikes, it takes care of all the fancy clothes, it takes care of all the other crap we’re wasting money on our kids with. And it does wonders.
On the need for a high-tech force. We dropped a lot of dumb bombs in Desert Storm. We’ve done it in every war. The reason you drop lots of them is that you’re hoping through the laws of statistics and probability one of them is going to hit your target. We should be able to get away from that and get a much higher level of precision kill, and that’s where we’re making our investment.
On his own role. I’m sort of a crossover. I don’t claim either to be a black leader or a white leader. I try to talk to all of America.
On leadership. Gifted political leadership is the ability to know how much the American people will let you do, plus a bit more.
RELATED ARTICLE: The other member of the team
Thirty years ago this week, four young girls died when a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which had been the headquarters of Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to desegregate that city. Alma Powell had gone to Bible school there. “I knew very well where those little girls were in that bathroom, and right now I can tell you what it smelled like–like wet concrete. That was where little teenage girls went to get away to chitchat and primp in front of the mirror, and that’s what those four little girls were doing that Sunday morning.” The general’s wife is ordinarily imperturbable, but her quiet voice cracks as she tells the story. “We must remember where we have been,” she says.
Alma Powell remembers. Her maternal grandfather was born a slave; her maternal grandmother was born a year after slavery was abolished. Both went to college and became teachers. All five of their children were educators. Alma Powell’s father was the principal of a segregated high school in Birmingham; her mother taught primary school. At age 19, Alma Powell graduated from Fisk University in Nashville. Her parents expected her to get a good education. “It was the norm,” she says.
Today she spends some of her free time working with a new generation of young girls struggling to learn. She has volunteered at a local Virginia elementary school; she also offers her time to a group called Best Friends, which aims to prevent teenage pregnancy. “It’s a matter of building self-esteem,” she says. “I have seen those little girls for four years, and it’s really exciting to see how they have developed. They learn to accept themselves; they learn to respect themselves.”
Do it yourself. She adds: “In the cities and in society as a whole, particularly with our young African-Americans, you can’t expect government to take over and make things work. That’s another thing I tell the girls: Don’t wait for somebody else to do it; each one of us doing something for someone else can make a difference.” Even in segregated Birmingham, she recalls, the community pulled together. Her mother started Alabama’s first licensed day-care center with the backing of local black women’s organizations. “Those organizations today have to do that same kind of thing,” she says.
But the children she sees today face problems different from those she faced growing up in the segregated South. “My father ran a very tight ship; he was in control of the school,” she says. “He didn’t know every student, but he knew most of them and they had a very healthy respect for him. The parents upheld what discipline the school enforced. There was never any question. Life as we lived it doesn’t exist the same way anymore. The family is not as firm a core of society.”
Her own family is Alma Powell’s core. The Powells met on a blind date in 1962; when he was ordered to Vietnam later that year, she told him she wasn’t going to wait for him. “I wasn’t bluffing,” she says. He proposed. Today she guards what little privacy she, her husband and their three children have retained since the general became a national figure. “Public life is very hard,” she says. “It’s like living in a goldfish bowl.”
She knows that a run for the presidency would open the Powells to unprecedented scrutiny. “You might start out a saint, but I don’t think you’d end up one,” she says. “I would like to be out of public life as much as possible.” She will have a say in the matter: The Powells make the big decisions together. As a lieutenant colonel, Powell left his family behind to take a battalion command in Korea only after Alma agreed it was for the best. “It was definitely a mutual decision,” she says.
At least for now, she thinks her husband can serve his country in ways other than running for the presidency. “I think he can offer leadership,” she says, “but I think he can offer it just as well as a private citizen.” Alma Powell is torn: believing her husband can inspire the young girls she counsels and nurtures in the city, she knows the price of his leadership is high–her family’s peace and privacy.
RELATED ARTICLE: In Washington’s footsteps
In 1775, after her first glimpse of the new head of the Continental Army, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband: “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable impression of General Washington, but the half was not told me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman and the soldier, look agreeably blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.”
Although the Constitution dictates civilian control of the military, the office of president was designed for, and by, the officer and gentleman who so impressed Abigail Adams. Other generals have followed him from the battlefield to the presidency– Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Modest beginnings. These were all people’s generals from relatively modest backgrounds who proved their mettle by leading their troops through difficult passages to victory. Washington was not nearly as well connected as Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. Andrew Jackson grew up an orphan, fighting the British as a boy and fighting duels as an adult; he made his way up on the frontier, battling the Indians and the British. U.S. Grant was notoriously unsuccessful in business; his rough-hewn uniforms and chewed cigars made him almost undistinguishable from his men. “Ike” came from one of those modest American farm families that produce high achievers; his political savvy was concealed by his informal manner, sometimes tangled syntax and trademark Eisenhower jacket.
A son of Jamaican immigrants, Colin Powell grew up in the South Bronx, soldiered through Vietnam and led the military to victory in the gulf war. Even in his bemedaled uniform, he seems a regular guy, a people’s general in the most racially and ethnically integrated part of American society.
Victorious generals sometimes appeal to the electorate because it is hard to know where they stand on the issues. Washington’s first cabinet included Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two political adversaries; each hoped the general would take his side. Grant, hailed by both regulars and reformers as one of their own, disappointed both. One of Franklin Roosevelt’s sons thought Eisenhower was a New Dealer, while Harry Truman, who had lived with Ike’s brother in a Kansas City rooming house in 1905, was sure “his whole family are Republicans.” Eisenhower, meanwhile, was careful to keep quiet his anti-New Deal economic views.
Eisenhower was careful, too, never to be seen grabbing for power: Americans distrust generals who lack the modesty and self-control that enabled Washington to refuse the untrammeled authority others pressed on him. The grandiloquent Douglas MacArthur was revered for his generalship but rejected by wide margins when his name was on the ballot, much as “the little Napoleon,” George McClellan, had been rejected almost 100 years before. More than 200 years later, it seems that many Americans are still looking for the rare combination of authority and modesty that the second first lady saw in the first president.
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