A General's Next Service

CARL T. ROWAN

September 30, 1993|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Gen. Colin Powell, the nation's top-ranked military officer, retires today in the midst of an orgy of publicity and hero worship unmatched since Dwight D. Eisenhower left the military.

The remarkable parallel is that most press coverage speculates about whether General Powell, the son of poor Jamaican immigrants, will be tapped by the Republican Party to run for president, as Eisenhower was.

Already we're reading silly opinion polls saying that if the 1996 election were held today, General Powell would defeat Bill Clinton. Very silly, because the general isn't close to the nomination, and the election is, politically, eons away.

It is remarkable and immensely pleasing that this black man has won the plaudits of this troubled nation, and has such wide attention and respect from the media. But it troubles me that news people focus only on how much money General Powell is going to make as a civilian and where he is going in politics.

When I look at the Colin Powell phenomenon, the first thing that pops into my mind is his telling me that an elementary school teacher in New York told him that he was ''a little slow'' and had to be put in a ''track'' with mediocre students. Today, millions of our deprived youngsters, especially black kids, get shunted into dead-end ''tracks'' by people who believe that they are ''uneducable'' or ''a little slow.''

General Powell told me that he did ''horse around a lot'' and get poor grades, even after he enrolled at City College of New York. Then he found his calling in the ROTC where, in 1958, he graduated at the top as ''cadet colonel'' and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army.

Five years later Lieutenant Powell was at the General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he asked to go to graduate school. ''Your college record isn't good enough,'' he was told bluntly. Angry and insulted, he buckled down and finished second in his Leavenworth class of 1,244. Then he was sent, not to graduate school, but to Vietnam. The rest of his story makes for remarkable biography and history.

I ask why my profession cannot use General Powell's retirement to impress upon Americans the fact that there are millions of poor minority youngsters in this country who are potential Colin Powells who can help make this a greater, relatively fear-free, society if we just give them real opportunities.

What we now get are assumptions that because General Powell was Ronald Reagan's national-security adviser and George Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is a Republican. Hell, he was just a good soldier, a genuine patriot. But the notion that he is the new Eisenhower, waiting for a GOP draft, is enhanced by the fact that he took the conservative stance on gays in the military and the role of women in our armed forces.

I have a hunch that General Powell must be laughing as he moves on to make the family-security money he clearly deserves. I doubt that he even dreams that Sen. Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan and others will bow obsequiously while the Republican nomination is given to him on a platter. I'd wager my jTC Redskins football tickets that General Powell knows that a Republican Party that has never truly welcomed black people is not going to beseech him to be its leader.

I have a gut feeling that he is going to use his prestige and influence, not in partisan politics, but in trying to open up avenues of opportunity for kids who now face the same obstacles that he faced four decades ago.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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