IT IS bemusing to hear learned pundits discuss the prospects of a Colin Powell run for the presidency in 1996. The most popular scenario has the retired Army general leading a late and yet-to-be-defined third-party charge to save American voters from the limitations of a presumed Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole (or Phil Gramm) choice.
Mr. Powell has done nothing to encourage the speculation, remaining tight-lipped even about his political party affiliation. He has rebuffed the embrace of Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., to be an "adviser," and he has resisted the usually irresistible temptation to publicly revel in his celebrity status.
Colin Powell's widely publicized and long-awaited book is due out this fall, and much is being made of his national and international book tours coinciding with the traditional fall commencement of the presidential campaign season. Were it a scripted presidential launch, it could outshine both Democratic and Republican campaigns for originality, substance and media appeal.
But none of this intriguing scenario will come to pass, because Colin Powell will not run for president in 1996. (Although he does appear to be a vice-presidential hopeful, waiting for the nod from Bob Dole or Pete Wilson.)
There are two important reasons why Colin Powell will not be a third-party candidate in 1996: The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a traditionalist, and a third-party campaign is anything but traditional for a chain-of-command adherent. Also, Colin Powell is cautious, accustomed to careful strategy-making that has the highest potential for success and the lowest for risk.
Unlike Ross Perot, who started his own company at age 22, Mr. Powell is not an entrepreneur or a maverick, two characteristics that would be required for such an undertaking. A campaign against a sitting president is risky, and success as a third-party candidate has eluded all who have tried in this century.
There are a few other solid reasons why the general will not climb into the presidential ring. Among them are matters having to do with privacy and the issue of race relations in America.
Presidential candidates are subjected to inordinate levels of media and public scrutiny, particularly since the Watergate period. It is not that Mr. Powell could not pass muster; he could. But he appears to value his privacy more than most public figures with global name recognition. Everything we have heard about his humble origins and the work ethic that propelled him to the highest office in the military approaches heroic myth proportions. But when was the last time we heard anything at all about his family?
As a matter of personal preference, it is clear that Mr. Powell, even if he really wants to be president, does not want to be seen as wanting to be president. He would prefer, like Ike, to be drafted for the office.
Finally, as with so many important issues in America, there is the matter of race. Mr. Powell has met and bested the racial challenge throughout his military career, putting out racial skirmishes in the ranks in Vietnam and surviving thinly veiled inquiries about his abilities to command. But a presidential campaign is different.
The man who would be the first black president would be expected to talk intimately and extensively about race in both personal and public-policy terms. This would be uncomfortable and distasteful for Colin Powell, who has excelled at putting competence and performance over race and ethnicity.
The holiday from bigotry, criticism and intrusion that he now enjoys would vanish the moment he became a presidential candidate.
Unless the Republicans have a brokered convention in San Diego -- not an entirely preposterous possibility, given the crowded field -- we will see Mr. Powell make himself available for the No. 2 spot. This would be the best step if Mr. Powell wants to make history as America's first black president.
Adonis E. Hoffman is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.