Colin L. Powell started in Harlem and become the nation's top solider THE GENERALS OF DESERT STORM WAR IN THE GULF

February 17, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington-- Since Jan. 16, the start of Operation Desert Storm, many of his nights have been spent in his office on the sofa -- napping underneath a favorite painting of a band of 19th century black soldiers crossing the prairie.

But even in less explosive times, the first light of dawn would often catch Gen. Colin L. Powell, the nation's top military officer, in his spacious, second-floor office at the Pentagon, finishing a round of calls to sources.

General Powell, 53, the youngest ever and first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is, at once, a respected and decorated military leader -- "the complete soldier," President Bush called him -- and the quintessential Washington insider with a Rolodex that won't quit and a smile that can't miss.

And if the rare combination has won him high praise, and high presidential appointments in the past, it's earning for the four-star general from Harlem even higher accolades these days for his role in the nation's most complex military buildup in a generation.

"He's coming to be the central figure in a way that is usually occupied by the civilian secretary of defense," said one Capitol Hill insider.

"He's the right person at the right time," said Robert Sims, senior vice president at the National Geographic Society, who worked with General Powell at the Pentagon in the mid-1980s.

A two-time Vietnam veteran, he's brought the legacy of that war to the military engagements he's steered as Joint Chiefs chairman -- the quick and powerful U.S. invasion of Panama and now the Persian Gulf war. As he told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, "My job is to make sure that if it is necessary to go to war, we go to war to win."

That directness -- along with a poised, collegial, yet authoritative manner -- has served him well, especially at a time when the public is glued to every televised word and nuance of every report.

When asked at a January Pentagon briefing about his strategy for going after the Iraqi army, he said in perfect sound-bitese, "First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."

"At least he didn't say he wants to 'interdict its lines of communications and then envelop it,' " said one longtime military observer. "He does it in English. It's remarkably different from what we're used to getting from military strategists."

"Star quality," one admirer called it. "A phenomenon," said another. "The finest military officer this nation has produced since World War II," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a member of the Armed Services Committee and a former military officer.

General Powell, a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, has so impressed colleagues that, although he has no partisan affiliation (he advised both George Bush and Jesse Jackson during the last presidential campaign), a number of Republicans suggested him as a running mate for Mr. Bush in 1988 -- and now, for '92. His performance so far as Joint Chiefs chairman has even stepped up whispers that the ROTC-trained "soldier statesman," as some have called him, may be presidential material.

"It depends how the war proceeds," said one military analyst and longtime friend, "but analogies with Eisenhower may not be misplaced."

His roots, however, would be analogous to few who have reached so lofty a position.

The son of a $40-a-week shipping clerk and a seamstress, both Jamaican immigrants, Colin Powell was born in Harlem and reared in the poor, tough South Bronx section of New York, in a close-knit, extended, hard-working family.

"I really think the family was a lot of the secret of our successes," said his sister, Marilyn Berns, a teacher in Santa Ana, Calif.

He was an average student who majored first in engineering and then geology at the City College of New York, finding his niche with the ROTC there, one of the few blacks in the unit. He was attracted to the uniforms, he has said.

As a second lieutenant, he served as an infantry platoon leader in Germany before two tours in Vietnam (1962-'63, 1968), where he received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star and once pulled troops to safety after his helicopter crashed and burned.

After earning a master's degree in business administration at George Washington University, he was selected as a White House Fellow in 1972, where he caught the eye of Caspar W. Weinberger, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Frank C. Carlucci, Mr. Weinberger's deputy.

"There are some events in life that are turning points because they give you a vision of what you can do," said Ms. Berns. "That's what that year was for Colin."

He would go on to work for Secretary of Defense Weinberger in the mid-'80s, and then as deputy to National Security Adviser Carlucci, succeeding him in the top post in 1987 and bringing control to an agency damaged by the Iran-contra scandal.

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