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October 1993

President Powell?

There's much talk these days of Colin Powell's presidential aspirations. Steven Stark took a look at the potential for a Powell presidency for The Atlantic in 1993.

by Steven Stark

"On paper, if he got the Republican nomination," one Democratic consultant says, "I don't see how the Democrats could win"

Ross Perot last year posted the second strongest showing by a third-party presidential candidate in this century--a sign that the political system might be about to undergo a major upheaval. With President Bill Clinton seemingly in political trouble, the press and the political establishment have continued to speculate about the sweeping effect that Perot and his movement could have on our politics, particularly if he runs again in 1996.

But another figure on the scene has far more potential than Perot to revolutionize American politics with a presidential run in 1996. His name is Colin Powell. If Powell could somehow win the Republican nomination, the theory goes, he could co-opt the Perot movement and split the Democratic Party, perhaps irreparably, by attracting a large number of votes from its black base constituency. That would give him a historic opportunity to reshape the electoral map--not to mention our attitudes about race. "His potential as a presidential candidate is mind-boggling," a well-known Democratic consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, said recently. "On paper, if he got the Republican nomination, I don't see how the Democrats could win." And then he added, "Is there any way you could give him my name, so I could work for him?"

Of course, campaigns aren't run on paper. General Powell, who leaves his position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on September 30, has never run for office. He doesn't divulge any party affiliation, and his views on issues from abortion to economic policy are unknown, apparently even to his numerous friends and admirers. He has never endorsed a candidate, and he declined to be interviewed for this article. For the record, his special assistant for public affairs, Colonel F. William Smullen III, was willing to tackle the question of presidential aspirations head on. "He has none at this time," Smullen said, showing, if nothing else, that a Powell press spokesman can hedge with the best of them.

No doubt Smullen is telling the truth. By all accounts Powell has not spent his life planning a run for the White House, even if his recent travel schedule has sometimes resembled that of a candidate. But if Powell, who is fifty-six, hasn't thought seriously about the presidency yet, some of his friends and associates have--not to mention professional observers of the military or of Powell's career. What they see is a consummate politician, a compelling speaker, a Washington professional, and a figure of stature who charmed gay-rights protesters at the Harvard graduation ceremonies last June. They cite his public-opinion ratings, which are somewhere in the stratosphere: a June Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll listed Powell's favorable-unfavorable rating at an almost unheard-of 64 percent to six percent. They see miniseries material (or terrific campaign-ad footage) detailing Powell's birth in Harlem to West Indian immigrants, his childhood in the South Bronx, his heroic service in Vietnam, and his rapid rise through the ranks in Washington under both Democrats and Republicans. Already two laudatory biographies have been written about him, and more than half a dozen children's books, with titles such as Colin Powell: Straight to the Top and Colin Powell: A Man of War and Peace. By now he is growing accustomed to the introductory speeches that compare him to Dwight Eisenhower, leading inevitably to the question, Will he or won't he?

For what it's worth, a number of Powell observers think he just might. They speculate that Powell wants to be President and could even be a candidate in 1996, particularly if things don't work out well for Clinton. "Sure, I think he's interested," says Howard Means, the author of Colin Powell: Soldier/Statesman -- Statesman/Soldier (1992). Even Powell's good friend Harlan Ullman, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, after detailing the many reasons why Powell wouldn't want to do it (doesn't have that burning ambition and drive, knows the limits of the office and himself, might not be his style, and so forth), told me recently, "Look, if the conditions were right and he were convinced he was the right man, I'm sure he'd give it some serious thought and might run."

Obviously, many of the political arguments for a Powell candidacy amount to little more than intriguing guesswork at this point. Still, history and the current Zeitgeist both suggest that a Powell run for the presidency next time might have a lot going for it.

For one thing, when a President fails, voters tend to look for candidates who are the opposite of the man they would replace: The down-home, obsessed-with-domestic-policy Bill Clinton replaced the patrician, foreign-policy-minded George Bush. Similarly, Jimmy Carter was succeeded by Ronald Reagan, who embodied traits Carter didn't have. If many voters still see Clinton as irresolute and lacking in stature in 1996, Powell would be seen as offering decisiveness and strength.

Moreover, the 1992 campaign was the first since 1936 in which foreign-policy issues played virtually no role. Sooner rather than later the country's unusual near-total preoccupation with domestic problems will end. Should Clinton's inexperience cause him any foreign-policy or military problems in the next two years, who better to offer a critique than the former national security adviser and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

Another point worth noting is that Powell would not be the first successful general to seek the presidency. Nor is Eisenhower the only model he would have: ten of forty-one Presidents have been generals, and all successful major wars except the First World War have produced a hero who became President--the Revolutionary War (George Washington), the War of 1812 (Andrew Jackson), the Mexican War (Zachary Taylor), the Civil War (Ulysses S. Grant), the Spanish-American War (Theodore Roosevelt), and the Second World War (Eisenhower and even John F. Kennedy). Some of Powell's friends may be bemoaning the fact that a presidential run would drag him into the messy world of partisan politics, but his entry into politics would fit an American archetype: the soldier-turned-private-citizen who is above elective politics and all its paraphernalia but agrees to be drafted to save his country. If Powell were to answer the call "grudgingly," he would be following in an enormously appealing mythic tradition begun by George Washington (supposedly dragged from Mount Vernon against his wishes) and continued most recently by Eisenhower. Sure, Powell may have spent much of the past two decades in Washington. But because he is in the military, in an anti-politics era he has the advantage of not being viewed as part of the political establishment.

It's certainly true that feelings toward the military are different now from what they once were, particularly among Baby Boomers. Most of the men in that generation never served in the armed forces, in contrast, say, to the men of the Second World War generation. But it's also true that Powell is a different kind of general from most others who have held the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, or who became famous by leading a successful war effort. To begin with, very few soldiers have been killed under his command: this is a "Give peace a chance" general. Unlike many famous generals--whose lack of rhetorical eloquence reinforced their masculine images as men of deeds rather than words--Powell is a commanding public speaker who projects well on television. (Showing that he understands the laconic nature of military rhetoric, however, Powell did come up with a memorable epigram on the Gulf War: "Our strategy for going after this army is very, very simple. First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it.")

Powell is also identified in the public mind not just with a particular armed conflict but with the successful effort in the wake of the disastrous Vietnam War to restore the morale and repute of the military. That role of organizational reformer is an unusual one for a military figure, but it conforms to the way the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has evolved into far more of a public political job than a behind-the-scenes military one. In an era when women are entering the military in increasing numbers, it also conforms to a new, "softer" view of that institution in American culture, which is reflected in the television situation comedy Major Dad--featuring the domestic travails of a tough Marine who marries a liberal reporter. It is the longest-lasting sitcom about the military since M*A*S*H, which was far more derisive.

Voters have not turned to generals throughout American history simply because they're thought to be above politics. Before the advent of big business and large corporations, military men were often thought to possess the skills we associate today with business leaders. Powell's reform efforts may give him an image of organizational acumen similar to Ross Perot's or Bill Gates's. And Powell is seen as having helped to turn around the biggest company of them all--the military.

Throughout our history generals have also tended to fulfill a yearning for order, which often arises in periods like our own. We are now in the opening years of the post-Cold War era. Michael Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, has observed that in postwar periods the public tends to become pessimistic and to undergo wild mood swings as it seeks leaders to help it interpret the new, confusing age. In these periods voters often turn to generals, such as Grant and Eisenhower. "The operative philosophy of the military has always been that we're going to put ideology aside and whatever works, works," Barone says. The Perot movement, with its emphasis on nonpartisanship, demonstrates that this sentiment is popular now.

The current yearning for order is also reflected in the way the culture has made folk heroes out of many football and basketball coaches. Like a general, a Joe Gibbs (the former Washington Redskins coach) or a Mike Krzyzewski (the basketball coach for Duke University) is identified in the public mind with being able to define a mission, organize his troops or team with discipline, and win. Powell's speeches often end up sounding like an extraordinary locker-room pep talk, a genre that is itself derived from the traditional oration a general might give before sending troops into battle. In his book Reagan's America, Garry Wills described how Reagan--who called himself "the Gipper" --gave speeches that borrowed heavily from the genre of the pep talk. So it goes with Powell's speeches, which often eschew the details of government or military analysis and concentrate instead on the simple virtues of teamwork, honesty, confidence, and an ability to deal with disappointment. If the policy paper seems to be the model for much of Clinton's rhetoric, the model for Powell's is the graduation or convocation address, in which he can talk about values. Earlier this year he told the students of Lawson State Community College, in Birmingham, Alabama,

My simple message to you is, the only thing you do with yesterday is learn from it. What did I do wrong? Not just, what did somebody do to me? What did I do wrong? How could I improve on what I did yesterday? What have I learned from yesterday and how well can I use that today? So live for today, every minute of it, every hour of it. Save part of today to prepare for tomorrow, and always be thinking about the day after tomorrow, but dream about next week.

Above all, my young friends, have faith. Have faith in yourselves. Have faith in this country, which is such a wonderful country. Have faith in our political system, which is unlike any other in the world. There is no other nation like this. It is ours to take care of, to love, and to cherish.

Remember those who came before you. Remember what they are expecting of you. Hold fast to the dream about next week, and let that dream and your willingness to work toward that dream be your only, only limitation.

Because Powell has a "can-do" spirit, an image as someone not directly connected to the "mess in Washington," and a persona that meshes nicely with the desire for order, he has a lot of the political strengths of Perot without, perhaps, many of Perot's weaknesses. In theory, Powell has the potential to tap an organizational base far larger than Perot's United We Stand America--namely, the whole military and veteran establishment, which has tended to be very disappointed in Clinton, largely because of his stand on gays in the military, his efforts to avoid service during the Vietnam War, and his defense cutbacks. There is also some evidence that Perot himself--not to mention his numerous followers, who tend to be skeptical of all elected politicians--might be favorably disposed toward a Powell candidacy. "I have the highest regard for General Powell," Perot told me not long ago. "He'd make a fine president of anything--whether it's a company or the country." Perot's confidant and part-time adviser Jim Squires goes further. "Perot thinks Powell is the greatest thing since sliced bread," Squires says. "I think in terms of politics, style, personal life, and character, Powell is the epitome of what Ross Perot would like to see both parties put on the table." Squires says that when Perot traveled around the country during the campaign last year asking his audiences whom they wanted as his vice-presidential candidate, Powell was the overwhelming choice. Squires adds that although he doesn't think Perot will run in 1996, a Powell candidacy could well make a Perot run even more unlikely.

Like Eisenhower, who was wooed by both parties four decades ago, Powell would eventually need to choose a political party. That fact troubles some of his admirers, who seem to think that the mountains should come at least a short distance to Muhammad. "Moderate" and "centrist" are about the only words that come to mind when any of these friends and associates are asked to identify Powell's ideology or party affiliation. "He's a centrist who could run in either party," Harlan Ullman says. "He's uncomfortable with the conservative elements of the Republican Party, because of their traditional stands on civil rights and social issues, but he's uncomfortable with the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, because of their views on defense and foreign policy." Howard Means says, "I think he would have some difficulty running as a Republican. He was very troubled, for example, by the whole Willie Horton thing."

Still, many suspect that Powell, like Ike, will end up in the Republican Party. It's where virtually all his patrons have been--from Frank Carlucci and Caspar Weinberger, more than twenty years ago, when he was a White House fellow, to Ronald Reagan and George Bush. If Powell is as pragmatic as his friends claim, he'll quickly realize that this will be by far the easier nomination to get in 1996; it's still virtually impossible to defeat an incumbent in his own party. Moreover, although Powell might actually be a stronger candidate among a Democratic-primary electorate, which includes a high percentage of blacks, he would likely run much more strongly in the fall as a Republican, because he could count on holding most of that party's conservative base and still forge an appeal to key parts of the Democratic coalition. "Because of his race, he has about as un-Republican a profile as you can imagine," Michael Barone says. "But the kind of people who end up really changing our politics are those who go against type--the patrician Franklin Roosevelt in the Democratic Party, or former Democrat Ronald Reagan as a Republican. Powell has the same thing going for him."

That isn't to say, of course, that Powell would have the Republican nomination or the presidency handed to him. Some party professionals and observers are skeptical about his chances. He might turn out to be a lousy campaigner. What looks decisive in uniform can seem quirky or even dictatorial in civilian life, particularly to the press. Presidents preside by collaborating with many decision-makers and have to be comfortable with the loose chain of authority the Founding Fathers envisioned. A general, even one as politically adept as Powell, can sometimes become accustomed to sitting atop a hierarchy and issuing orders. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" gains you immortality if you're a commander. "Damn the Congress, full speed ahead!" can get a President impeached, and it should.

Moreover, Powell has never faced the voters. The long process he would have to endure is far tougher, in terms both of media scrutiny and of the number of primaries, than anything that Eisenhower had to undergo in 1952. The recent history of military figures who tried to make the jump into politics is also not auspicious, as anyone familiar with the unsuccessful experiences of Alexander Haig (presidential run in 1988), Pete Dawkins (Senate run in New Jersey in 1988), and William Westmoreland (gubernatorial run in South Carolina in 1974) knows.

Powell would enter a Republican Party split on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. "The Republican primaries in 1996 are likely to be an ideological battleground," says Hastings Wyman Jr., the editor and publisher of Southern Political Report, a newsletter. "I'm not sure Powell has the political savvy to walk through the minefield of the religious right." At least one southern state's party chairman echoes that thought, adding that Powell might prove to be too liberal a candidate for his conservative party. On the other hand, in a primary state like Georgia, where independents can vote in any party, Powell might attract a sizable crossover vote, particularly among blacks. And, Michael Barone points out, Powell's lack of exposure to the Republican Party's internal wars could prove an advantage. "He is out of tune with the arguments that have been going on inside the party--not only with social issues but on things like taxes," Barone says. "But that could help him in the long run to avoid these issues and perhaps rise above them. I think his military background and style could be enormously appealing to conservative voters today, particularly in the South, which tends to revere the military and its culture."

Powell would have the further advantage of being well known. Democrats tend to nominate relative unknowns who emerge in the national consciousness through the primaries--Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton. In contrast, the Republicans--perhaps because their voters tend to be more staid--have traditionally nominated one of their best-known figures. Since 1948, a period of twelve elections, the Republicans have always nominated a candidate who was running at or near the top of national polls a year before the election. Today the three most popular figures the party could nominate appear to be Robert Dole, Perot, and Powell. Dole will be seventy-three in 1996, and Perot--even if he doesn't end up in Powell's corner--has yet to show any inclination to run as a Republican. That leaves Powell.

There is, of course, the issue of race, which sooner or later always comes up in discussions about Powell. "Sadly, it's a potential problem," says Greg Schneiders, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. "We've never had a woman President; we've never had a Jewish President; we've had only one Catholic President. The prejudice barrier just cannot be overestimated."

But there are others who think that Powell is well positioned to overcome that as well, even among Republican primary voters, who tend to be quite conservative and unsupportive of most black candidates. In a new book, The Scar of Race, Paul Sniderman, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and Thomas Piazza, a research specialist at the Survey Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, argue on the basis of sophisticated polling data that racial prejudice, while still obviously a factor, is now far less prevalent in American society than it once was. "Race prejudice," they write, "no longer organizes and dominates the reactions of whites." Rather, they contend, "the contemporary discussion of race confuses what white Americans think about blacks and what they think about public policies dealing with blacks. The two are not the same." In other words, Sniderman suggested in an interview with me, what keeps many white people from voting for black candidates is not prejudice but their lack of support for the policies that most black candidates espouse.

Sniderman thinks that Powell--running as a Republican--could well have the ideal persona to appeal to white voters who have never voted for black candidates because they haven't liked the candidates' politics. "There would also be a sense of historic moment surrounding his candidacy," he says. Given the chance to take part in something they saw as "the right thing to do," Sniderman says, millions of white conservative voters might well support Powell. He adds that in view of the symbolic import of a Powell candidacy, the former general could get as much as half the black vote in a general election. In contrast, George Bush got eleven percent of the black vote in 1992, and no Republican has had a real chance to carry the black vote since--you guessed it--Eisenhower in 1956. Even Greg Schneiders admits that if Powell won the Republican nomination, it would show that he had put the prejudice issue behind him and was running straight at the heart of the Democratic coalition. "Then he would be a very, very tough guy to beat," Schneiders says. "Barring a major gaffe, he wouldn't lose."

Obviously, no one really knows what Powell will or should do. No matter how favorable a scenario may look in theory, the odds are formidable for anyone who seeks the presidency. Powell has spent the past thirty-five years in some form of government service--and often relatively low-paying service at that--and may decide he wants time for himself and his family. Powell knows both Clinton and former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, another potential 1996 Republican candidate, and he may be reluctant to run against those with whom he served. Clinton may turn it around in the next two years, decreasing the prospects of any opponent. Some have suggested that Powell should seek another office first or wait. One recent poll in New York showed that when Powell was hypothetically matched against Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994, he trailed 32 percent-40 percent, demonstrating that Powell's popularity may not be transferable to electoral politics, that voters don't want him in that specific job, or that it's tough to run as a Republican in New York, particularly if you're perceived as something of a carpetbagger because you haven't lived there for more than thirty years.

Powell is surely keeping in mind the burdens he would bear as the first black candidate who had a realistic chance to win the presidency. Powell is eloquent on the subject of the racism he has had to overcome in his career, and is fond of telling the story about how "the young black captain just back from Vietnam thirty years ago, who couldn't get a hamburger at a Georgia restaurant unless he went to the back window, has become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of America's armed forces." Harlan Ullman says the issue of race would be in Powell's mind if he considered a run for the presidency. "He knows how many failed presidencies we've had in modern times," Ullman says. "But he would have a particularly awesome responsibility. He would not want to be a failed President, but he especially would not want to be the first President who was black who failed."

A lot can change in two years. The risks are high, and if he runs, he could stumble. But a convergence of forces could well give Colin Powell a unique chance in 1996 to change the face of American politics.


Steven Stark writes about politics and popular culture and is a commentator on National Public Radio.

Copyright © 1993 by Steven Stark. All rights reserved.
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