Try it on for size: President Powell

Sandy Grady

September 30, 1993|By Sandy Grady

IN A parting session with reporters, Gen. Colin L. Powell was told he was being compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, war heroes who won the presidency. How did he see himself?

General Powell rolled his eyes with "gimme-a-break" exasperation.

"Oh, more like General Halftrack," said General Powell, alluding to the bumblehead in the "Beetle Bailey" strip.

Despite his evasive humor, Colin Powell's political future is no joke in Washington back rooms.

A black, immensely popular ex-general running as a Republican against Bill Clinton in 1996? That prospect is too tantalizing to ignore.

"Colin Powell," one political consultant sighs, "is a tidal wave waiting to happen."

Even if too young to remember, politicos are excited by the Ike Syndrome. Nobody knew much about Eisenhower's politics or what he stood for. He was simply the enormously likable generalissimo of the Last Great War. Once he decided he was Republican, Ike won in a 1952 landslide.

Is Colin Powell really a black, reincarnated Ike? Fueling the impression are polls which show he'd give Clinton big trouble in 1996. A USA Today poll rates General Powell 40 percent, Bill Clinton 38 percent. A U.S. News & World Report survey gives General Powell a four-point edge over Mr. Clinton. More intriguing, General Powell would get 50 percent of the black vote, the Democrats' most loyal bloc.

That's not a boomlet. That's a boom. No wonder Democrats tiptoe gingerly around the General Who May Turn Politician.

"I don't know what he is (Republican or Democrat) but he's a hero in my book," said Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., on a network show. "He'll be formidable . . ."

"I think we'd all be proud to have our kids grow up to be like Colin Powell," sidesteps Clinton campaign guru Paul Begala.

He's right. General Powell is the embodiment of what America's supposed to be about -- a kid from Harlem, son of Jamaican immigrants, who wins a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Vietnam, becomes adviser to George Bush and Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, then orchestrator of the Persian Gulf war.

That dream bio and the Powell media swoon (news-mag covers, TV specials, a National Press Club speech) makes Republicans salivate about another Ike landslide.

Count me as a skeptic.

Sure, I'm a longtime admirer. General Powell is a thoughtful, tough, decisive paragon ("everything Clinton is not," jibes GOP pollster Linda Divall). He's no blood-and-guts warmaker. Reading Rick Atkinson's new book, "Crusade," you see General Powell privately opposing the gulf war shoot-'em-up, then adroitly managing the coalition and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf's tantrums.

But gloried generals who go into politics are barging into No-Man's Land.

I recall interviewing Gen. William Westmoreland, home from Vietnam and running for South Carolina governor. When he used a steel pointer to map the state like the Mekong Delta, I suspected he was out of his league. He was.

Taken out of gold braid and gabbing politics, generals blow up minefields. Ike avoided this in 1952 -- little TV, no debates. Smooth and smart as he is, General Powell is vulnerable when grilled on abortion, civil rights or taxes. He already draws gay-rights protesters.

Even the general admits his poll ratings may be fantasy. As he told U.S. News & World Report, "I'm shielded from the abuse and hurly-burly and tussle of normal political life."

General Powell's popularity in part stems from the gulf war. (Ironically, the war didn't stave off George Bush's defeat but made heroes of its top commanders.) But by 1996 the gulf war expedition will fade into a hollow, over-hyped triumph.

Then there's the fire-in-the-belly question. General Powell can retire splendidly on his $6 million book, $83,000 pension and $60,000-a-pop speeches. But it takes a massive ego and NTC ferocious hunger to climb in the ring with such '96 Republican zealots as Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Pat Robertson and perhaps the general's ex-boss, Dick Cheney.

I doubt Bob Dole will treat candidate Powell as gently as the Pentagon press corps does. Nor will ex-General Powell find the rowdy zoo of a national campaign has the orderly deference of military life.

Two different worlds.

After Eisenhower was elected, Harry Truman laughed sourly, "Poor Ike. He'll sit in the Oval Office, giving out orders. And nothing will happen."

Sure, I can picture a scenario in which Colin Powell wins Republican acclamation and perhaps the '96 White House.

Stormy world events, maybe with a revived Russian threat, plus street crime and unemployment could make Americans yearn for a strong, reassuring ex-general. Mr. Clinton's polls could dive. Let a military guy straighten out the mess.

Then Colin Powell could truly be the "black Ike" America needs. But somehow I doubt it.

Strip away the four stars and a general becomes just another politician.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

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