Prognosticators Find Colin Powell a Tough Puzzle

Article excerpt

GEN. COLIN L. POWELL is an elegant enigma. The youngest-ever chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first black man in that post and one of the youngest four-star generals ever, he retires from the Army Thursday for what is widely predicted to be a brilliant political career.

But Powell has a Cheshire-cat quality: Look closely, and the general dissolves, leaving behind little more than a broad, engaging smile. He refuses to say which party he supports and has not divulged anything resembling a political philosophy. Other than a vague remark that he wants "to do something in public life" and plans to write his memoirs - for a reported $6 million - he has said nothing about his plans.

This fuzziness has not stopped Democrats and Republicans from claiming him as their own. Neither has it prevented the press and Washington pundits from proclaiming Powell the next Republican president of the United States.

"Note these words: Powell and Kemp will beat (Clinton) in 1996," said Bill Arkin, a military analyst referring to Republican Jack Kemp, housing secretary under President George Bush.

Such views have gained credence with a spate of recent public opinion polls that show Powell beating President Bill Clinton in a hypothetical presidential race by 4 percentage points.

A good part of this success seems tied to Powell's personality. He seems inherently incapable of making enemies. People who work with him "think he walks on water," said one Powell watcher.

"It's not just charisma," added a former staff aide, Lawrence DiRita. "It's an aura."

Powell also seems completely at home in the Washington power game. Behind the scenes, he fights discreetly but successfully for causes he believes in - maintaining the ban on gays, for example, or blocking U.S. intervention in Bosnia. In public, he displays a relaxed wit.

Powell's conservative admirers depict his rise from modest beginnings to the peak of Pentagon bureaucracy as a victory for the military's meritocracy, not racial quotas. …