Powell on the March

By Thomas, Evan; Barry, John et al. | Newsweek, September 11, 1995 | Go to article overview

Powell on the March


Thomas, Evan, Barry, John, Cohn, Bob, Newsweek


PRESIDENTS ALWAYS WANT COLIN POWELL AT their side. There is fresh evidence in "My American Journey," the autobiography Powell unveils next week. When George Bush won in 1988, Powell discloses, the new president-elect wanted to name him CIA director. Powell declined, and Bush later chose him to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After Bush lost in 1992, he turned to Powell for solace. Powell recalls how the two men and their wives spent the weekend after Election Day at Camp David, commiserating as they power-walked.

Bill Clinton, too, has sought Powell for his team. In 1992, Powell reports, Democratic power broker Vernon Jordan asked if he'd consider being Clinton's running mate. After Clinton won, Jordan approached Powell again, this time about becoming secretary of state. In 1994, Powell discloses, Clinton himself asked him if he would replace Warren Christopher at State. On Powell's final day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Clinton invited the general to the White House private quarters. As they chatted on the Truman Balcony, Powell gazed at the view from the epicenter of power: the South Lawn, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial. In that moment, Powell reveals, he pondered: would he ever savor this scene again?

As the 1996 presidential season begins, voters are wondering the same thing: is Powell launching a campaign to recapture the Truman Balcony, this time as president? In his 613-page book, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK, the retired four-star general leaves little doubt that he wants to run--and that he's leaning toward doing so as an independent.

AS CAREFULLY WORDED AS A DIPlomatic communique, the book's final chapter declares Powell's discomfort level with both major parties. He lays out a bland set of conservative principles that would allow him to run either as an independent or as a moderate Republican: low taxes, faith in free enterprise, new scrutiny of entitlements. Though a champion of traditional values, he makes it clear he's no fan of the religious right. For now, Powell says he feels no sense of political mission, but he seems impatient to acquire one. And if he runs, he discloses, he'll run "to win," not merely to be an inspiration to fellow blacks. The man who propounded the Powell Doctrine--overwhelming force, cautiously applied--is looking for his moment.

Political insiders will pore over the book's intriguing last pages like Egyptologists examining the Rosetta stone. But "My American Journey" is really a campaign document from start to finish, written by an author who clearly thinks that his life is his platform. Powell's story is a political homily about how racial tolerance, self-reliance, family unity and the craft of leadership can save any American--and America itself.

"My American Journey" is no tell-all confessional, either personal or political. Powell cleverly uses the book to hide in plain sight, which is what a man pursuing an Ike-like, I'm-above-it-all strategy must do. No hot buttons are pressed. He's mute about abortion, immigration, capital punishment or welfare payments to unwed teenagers. And this insider--the best briefer in the business--shrewdly appeals to suspicions about the very government in which he prospered. To be an outsider, as he now claims to be, it helps to be black. But it helps even more if you declare distaste for politics as we know it.

The book thus confirms what many Washingtonians already know, which is that Powell is a consummate political animal. He glosses over controversies in his neatly pressed career (page 31). Chronicling his rise from the South Bronx to the Pentagon's "E Ring," he documents almost too well his love of bureaucratic maneuver. A masterful desk jockey, he protests a bit too much that he really would have preferred to be a soldier's soldier. In fact, he yearned for the top jobs at headquarters and the White House.

Faced with what they regard as a weak field and a maddeningly resilient Bill Clinton, some Republicans are hoping to encourage Powell to run as one of their own. …

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