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The GOP's Anointed One may practice his politics privately, but the bigger mystery is why he is ultimately not a Democrat. (From our September 1996 issue.)

By 10.22.08

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The GOP's Anointed One may practice his politics privately, but the bigger mystery is why he is ultimately not a Democrat. (From our September 1996 issue.)Art by Dean Macadam

NO ONE KNOWS what Colin Powell really thinks, or what he will do, and it may be he does not know himself. Not long ago, though, he was supposed to lift American politics out of the slough of despond into which it seemed to have fallen. Powell was the Democrats' worst nightmare, and the Republicans' best hope. He was a public figure of unblemished reputation, and a good guy as well, and if anyone knew anything bad about him, they just weren't saying. Grumpy conservatives may have had reservations, but grumpy conservatives don't count. The media loved Colin Powell, and Bob Dole would have killed to get him on the ticket. But all this has changed, of course, and Powell's aura has fled. Therefore we may look at him now without tears, and discover the awful truth: He does not want to run for office, but would not mind being anointed; he also would be more comfortable as a Democrat.

In a way, his supposed candidacy and party affiliation were both accidental. The first public suggestion that he might grace a Republican ticket came from Howard Baker. In 1987, a television interviewer pointed out to the former senator that the Democrats had Jesse Jackson, while the Republicans did not have a prominent black as even a token. Baker said smoothly that Powell could be a candidate for vice president. George Will and Charles Krauthammer noted this then in their newspaper columns. In 1990, Parade magazine raised the possibility of a Bush-Powell ticket in the next presidential election. Powell's candidacy, or non-candidacy, was media-borne even from the beginning, and it culminated in the frenzy of last fall. Powell was free at last from writing his memoirs, and could lead a great crusade. He would declare himself a presidential candidate, and rescue the Republican Party from the conservatives who now controlled it. He was dissatisfied with things as they were. As he told Barbara Walters, "I have not been able to find a perfect fit in either of the two existing parties."

Political commentators interpreted this as high-mindedness,  but it was really more like disdain . No one who was serious about politics could ever find the perfect fit that Powell suggested he was seeking. Actually, no one who was serious about politics would bother looking. The two parties might be divided on broad principles, but they had their internal differences, and neither was run solely to please one individual. The search for a perfect fit had nowhere to go, although many of the commentators insisted that a variation would be useful. Powell might not fit the Republican Party, but the party might be made to fit him. He could yank it away from its distressing rightward tilt, and move it back to the center.

In fact, the idea that Powell was a Republican was never far-fetched. Flags and bunting and the sound of bugles became him. It was hard to imagine a man as wedded to the military as he was to be a Democrat. Admiral William Crowe, his predecessor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had supported Bill Clinton for president (and been appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James's as a reward), but Crowe always seemed more like a bureaucrat than a warrior. Powell might have been just as skillful a bureaucrat, but he looked more like a warrior, and warriors had no place in the Democratic Party. It teemed with people who saw the military not so much as an instrument of war as a vehicle for social change. Gays would have their own NCO clubs, and women would drive M-1A1 tanks. It was simply impossible to think of Powell as being comfortable with, say, Pat Schroeder. Besides, it was known that when the Clinton administration had sounded him out for a possible Cabinet position, he had not shown much interest. Loyalty demanded that he stay with the party of Presidents Bush and Reagan. They had elevated him through the command, and he in turn had served them well. There had been a laying on of hands, so to speak, and he was destined to follow them into the White House.

Or anyway, so it seemed. "If I had to bet today on one person for the Republican presidential nomination, I'd put my money on Colin Powell," William Kristol wrote in the first issue of the Weekly Standard last September. Kristol did not necessarily endorse the Powell candidacy -- although clearly he favored it -- but more important, as a Republican seer and strategist he gave it official status. The Sunday morning talk shows took a great leap forward. Commentators quoted Kristol, and then interviewed one another.

Sam Donaldson said a Powell presidency would be "good for the country." Media enthusiasm knew no bounds, and exactly where Powell stood on any issue was irrelevant. He transcended race and partisan politics, and personified the American dream. Meanwhile, he was off on his fabled book tour, while he kept his "options open."

THEN, IN NOVEMBER, he said he would not run for office, although he promised Republicans he would register in their party. He also said, however, that Mrs. Powell would remain a Democrat. He may have been telling us something here. Registered Republican or not, he was still keeping his options open. Try as he might, it was hard for Powell to think of himself as a Republican. "It is a racist society," he said after the O.J. Simpson verdict. "All you have to do is listen to Mark Fuhrman." Possibly he thinks the party still carries old baggage. Republican leaders may talk about the Big Tent and mean it, but there is the pull from friends, family, and history. One imagines Colin Powell telling Alma Powell of his decision to enroll as a Republican, and her saying, "Colin, how could you?"

Powell has hinted at this in his memoir My American Journey. He recalls the advice he got from Stu Spencer, the California political consultant who, among other things, practically invented Ronald Reagan when he first ran for office. Powell says Spencer told him, "Colin, if you ever do go into politics, do it as a Democrat. I know you well enough, and I don't think you'd be comfortable with some of the Republican agenda. You were raised in an old-fashioned Democratic home. You're too socially conscious."

It is the only reference to Spencer in the 643-page memoir, and it waves there like a flag. Powell also mentioned what Spencer told him when he was interviewed by Henry Louis Gates for the New Yorker. Powell may be loyal to past presidents, but he has qualms about being a Republican, and in truth many Republicans continue to have qualms about him. They do not express them openly, though, because they have that most Republican of all fears: God forbid someone should think they are racist.

Here is a border state congressman, who is one of the party's old bulls: "Is Powell really a Republican? We don't have to manufacture Republicans, you know, and what would he add to the ticket? Everyone knows the blacks are wedded to Clinton."

And here is a freshman Midwestern congressman, who speaks enthusiastically about the growing number of minorities in the party, but does not think black candidates can attract white voters: "We'd never have to worry about Powell being a candidate. He's not a risk taker. He's not an entrepreneur. It's not in his character. He'll talk about running, but never do it."

And here is a Midwestern senator, faultlessly in the middle: "The question is, could Powell click the way Perot clicked in 1992? We don't know. We don't know what he'd actually do until he did it."

But what Powell will do is unknown, and it may be he will never do anything. A man who knows him well, and therefore declines to be identified, says Powell wants to be president, but that he thinks he would lose his "moral credibility" if he were to admit it. Presumably, then, Powell would never hold office unless he were drafted, or else swept away by popular demand. There is no chance of that happening now, of course, but it does explain some of Powell's recent behavior. He seems to have found politics beneath him, and consequently he has squandered the glow from a year ago, and made himself look foolish. He said he would not campaign for Dole; then he said he would. He said he did not plan to speak at the Republican convention; then he said he did. He criticized party positions on abortion, gun control, welfare reform, and affirmative action. He said, mysteriously, "I am practicing my politics privately." Meanwhile, he was off on another book tour, chatting once again with Katie Couric and all the gang, this time to sell the paperback versions of the hardcover. None of this was dignified, although Powell might have weathered it, but the press was growing restive. It had been too worshipful too long, and it was looking for a corrective.

IN LATE JUNE it found it. Powell spoke in Austin, Texas, before som 1,000 owners of Schlotzsky's sandwich shops. The dais from which he spoke was decorated with cans of jalapeno peppers, sacks of bun mix, and jars of hot sauce, and, according to the Austin American-Statesman, he was paid $60,000 for speaking. It also was reported that Schlotzsky's got him for $60,000 because it booked early. Otherwise it might have had to go up to $80,000.

The speech was widely noted, along with the fee, peppers, bun mix, and hot sauce. Powell is serious about his image, and this one did not seem quite right. Old advocates began to rethink their positions. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called Bill Kristol to confer. Then she wrote a Sunday column in which she said Powell was "pretending he can be inside politics and outside politics at the same time, disguising his lack of nerve with high moral language." Newsweek was out the next day. The old conventional wisdom on Powell, it said, was "Above politics as usual." The new one was "Mario Cuomo in a uniform."

Meanwhile, it has been reported that Powell would like to be secretary of state. This is a position more or less above politics, and he could hold it in either a Dole or Clinton administration. Many possibilities now suggest themselves, and here is one: Clinton wins, and Warren Christopher retires. Strobe Talbott jumps ship. Clinton appoints Powell. Ken Starr hands up an indictment, and congressional Democrats turn honest. Clinton is forced to resign, and Gore becomes president. Gore, though, is now tainted, and at their convention, the Democrats decide that an African-American general would be just right. Powell is nominated by acclamation, and finally things work out.

(This article by John Corry, then The American Spectator's senior correspondent, appeared in our September 1996 issue.)

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.