High-profile mission to Haiti fuels speculation about Powell's political future CRISIS IN THE CARIBBEAN

September 19, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Last year, as Gen. Colin L. Powell was retiring as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a senior White House official approached a confidant of the general's with an intriguing feeler:

What would it take, the official asked, to get General Powell into the Clinton administration?

"Well, he might be interested in secretary of state," the general's friend said.

"That job is taken," the White House official said.

"Yes, I know, but that's not the question you asked," he replied.

A similar dance has been going on for nearly two years regarding the United States' most popular military man. Secretary of state? Vice presidential nominee? Presidential candidate?

At the end of last week, General Powell, whose 35-year military career culminated with the direction of the stunning military successes of the Persian Gulf war, was given another mission -- one that is both high profile and high risk. Joining former President Jimmy Carter and Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn of Georgia, he accepted the mission of trying to broker a last-minute deal in Haiti aimed at avoiding bloodshed.

Mr. Carter may be the leader of the delegation, but among the three,General Powell is the one who generates the most intense political speculation.

"Obviously, Colin Powell is the closest we have to a military hero," said historian Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

"He gives his seal of approval to anything that might happen [in Haiti] after that . . . "

Mr. Hess also noted that, as an African-American with a heritage in the Caribbean -- his parents were Jamaican -- General Powell ** had an additional advantage in Port-au-Prince: "He gives confidence to the Haitian people."

He has, in the recent past, had the same effect on his fellow Americans. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- son and grandson of Navy admirals, and a decorated former Navy flier who spent 6 1/2 years in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp -- says flatly that General Powell "is the greatest military leader this country has produced since World War II."

General Powell was born in Harlem and reared in the South Bronx section of New York, the upwardly mobile son of a garment district shipping clerk and a seamstress. When he entered City College of New York in 1954, he planned on an engineering major, but low marks in mathematics led him to change his major to geology.

But it was in ROTC that he shone, and when he graduated in 1958, he entered the Army as a second lieutenant. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam, but his big break came in 1972, when he was selected as a White House fellow and caught the eye of Caspar W. Weinberger, then director of the Office of Management and Budget, and his deputy, Frank C. Carlucci.

During the 1980s, he worked under Secretary of Defense Weinberger at the Pentagon and as a top deputy to National Security Adviser Carlucci at the Reagan White House. He was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs by President George Bush in 1989.

As the Persian Gulf war got under way, General Powell burned his image into the consciousness of the American people while explaining the Pentagon's battle plan with two memorable sentences.

"Our strategy for going after this army is very, very simple," he said. "First we are going to cut it off, then we are going to kill it."

The success of that war -- and his cool, tough demeanor in overseeing it -- left General Powell as one of the most respected and recognizable public figures of the decade.

His approval rating in the opinion polls was an unheard-of 86 percent. Various other surveys before the 1992 election showed that, by a 2-to-1 margin, Americans thought Mr. Bush should drop Vice President Dan Quayle from the ticket and choose General Powell.

But if everybody, it seems, has a post in mind for General Powell, there is an important point to remember: No one even knows whether he is a Republican or a Democrat.

It is a question he has staunchly refused to answer.

Prominent Republicans, such as former Reagan administration chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, are convinced that General Powell, who served in the White House and became prominent '' under Republican presidents, is a Republican.

Of course, Harry S. Truman and other prominent Democrats of his time simply assumed in the late 1940s and early 1950s that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Democrat. They assumed wrong. The parallel with General Powell is that General Eisenhower had served compatibly as the Supreme Allied Commander under both Mr. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. But as it turned out, General Eisenhower was a fiscal conservative -- and, moreover, one who hated the New Deal.

Nobody knew that for a long time. In fact, General Eisenhower's politics were such a mystery that as the 1952 presidential race dawned, each party all but offered him the nomination.

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