Colin Powell to step down but not out A run for president in '96 may be goal

September 28, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Gen. Colin L. Powell closes an extraordinary military career this week, leaving the domain of warriors and war rooms for a new world of money-making and, perhaps, politics.

The celebrated chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose skilled, self-assured leadership made him one of the most respected figures in the United States, has been vague about his plans. But no one expects him to recede from public view for very long.

General Powell has been fanning a resurgence of talk that he will seek the presidency in 1996, although his party affiliation remains a well-kept secret.

In the past, the general never ruled out a run for the office, but he dodged the question with the pat response that "nothing's burning in my gut" concerning politics.

Now he talks about "an obligation . . . to do something in public life."

"I think in due course I would like to be seen as serving the nation in some way," the four-star general told the Associated Press when asked about his plans a few weeks ago.

But the general has also hinted throughout the year that he might try to emulate his idol, Gen. George C. Marshall, whom President Harry S. Truman called on in his first day of retirement to help rebuild post-war Europe and forge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as secretary of state.

"He never ran for election to public office; he never exploited his fame," he told an audience in April.

Regardless of whether he becomes a Marshall with a prestigious appointment or follows the example of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with a bid for the presidency, General Powell knows the path he won't take.

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life giving speeches," he told reporters this month.

Those speeches could bring him as much as $60,000 an appearance. He has already sold his memoirs for a whopping $6 million and will be hawking the book across the country when it comes out in 1995 -- just ahead of the presidential election.

Colin Luther Powell, 56, who became the first black American to lead the nation's armed forces in 1989, will retire Thursday after serving two terms as Joint Chiefs chairman and principal military adviser to two presidents. The general, who was also the youngest man ever to hold the office, will be feted by President Clinton at a late afternoon ceremony at Fort Myer, Va.

Succeeding him will be one of his proteges, Army Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, 57, the NATO commander who promises to be as influential in shaping future defense policy but who lacks General Powell's charisma and political savvy.

Ferocious quote

General Powell is best known as the cool, confident military chief who briefed the nation during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He described the battle plan against the Iraqi army with disarming ferocity, saying: "First, we're going to cut it off, then we're going to kill it."

In waging that conflict and 27 other military operations, the general came to symbolize a generation of officers whose experience in Vietnam made them cautious about using military force but who were determined to win decisively if ordered to fight. He articulated what has become the mantra of U.S. war planners: If the military must fight, it must have clear objectives, go in quickly with overwhelming force and get out once the job is done.

He also left his unmistakable mark on the defense policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations, persuading both to avoid the kind of deep, rapid budget cuts that he says created "hollow" forces after the Vietnam war.

His influence had grown so immense by the time President Clinton took office that he was able to outflank his new commander-in-chief on lifting the military's ban on homosexuals. The president was forced to back down, settling for a marginal change in the policy.

Much like Mr. Eisenhower, the last great military leader courted by Republicans and Democrats for the top spot on their tickets, General Powell is already perceived widely as a proven leader.

"I don't think he has any negatives; it's more a matter of question marks," said Charles Black, a Republican political consultant, in assessing the general as a presidential candidate.

"I don't know where he stands on a lot of issues. He has to talk about his vision for the country, and as soon as he does that people will criticize him."

General Powell would fill "the leadership vacuum" in U.S. politics, said the Rev. Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, the religious broadcaster who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination in 1988. "I think he would be the best candidate either party could present. The question is: Which party gets him?"

No one really knows. Republicans instinctively feel the general, who is not registered with any party, is one of their own, seizing on his conservative defense views and loyal service in the Reagan and Bush years.

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