Can Powell be the Ike of '96?

July 25, 1995|By Robert A. Divine

FOUR YEARS after an unexpected defeat, the Republican Party goes outside its ranks, selecting the hero of the last war in order to regain the White House. Their choice -- a general -- carefully holds himself above the political arena until the last minute, then scores a stunning victory by appealing to voters across party lines.

That was in 1952, and the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower then suggests a scenario Colin Powell might well repeat in 1996. However, Mr. Powell will have a more difficult time next year, especially after the surprising Republican congressional victory in 1994. The Republican Party has a sense of momentum, confidence that history is on its side and no lack of eager and qualified presidential contenders.

Still, the Eisenhower-Powell parallels are clear and compelling. Both men demonstrated great ability in leading wartime coalitions to striking military success. Just as Eisenhower worked with Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle to conquer Nazi Germany, Mr. Powell proved equally adept at reducing friction and ensuring cooperation with Arab as well as European allies in the Persian Gulf war. Both won nearly universal admiration from their fellow citizens for such qualities as professional skill, a keen feeling for public relations and a nice blend of charm and humility.

Eisenhower and Mr. Powell both seemed to sense that the secret for political success is to play down the Napoleonic, man-on-horseback approach. Both were organizational generals, best suited to directing the planning and logistics for vast operations and letting their field commanders, such as George Patton and Norman Schwartzkopf, take the public bows. They seemed to have understood the lesson provided by Douglas MacArthur, whose flamboyance and egoism doomed his political ambitions.

Both used military careers to move from humble origins to national prominence. Both represented the American melting pot work. Eisenhower came from evangelical German stock in the rural heartland of the nation; Mr. Powell reflected a newer trend in immigration, West Indian blacks coming into the urban centers.

Above all, both men appeared, or appear, to lack the lust for office that has made voters distrustful of traditional politicians. In 1948, Eisenhower turned down appeals from both parties and four years later forced Republicans to convince him that it was his duty to seek high office. Colin Powell has been equally aloof, refusing to reveal his political affiliation, much less declare his candidacy. He, like Eisenhower, has chosen to stand above party, creating the image of a man ready to serve the nation, not his own political ego.

There are differences as well. In an age made cynical by repeated exposure of the personal foibles of American leaders, it will be much harder for Mr. Powell to convince the electorate of his disinterested desire to serve than it was for Eisenhower in the heyday of American optimism.

Many close to Eisenhower suspected that he hungered after the presidency long before he accepted the Republican Party's call. George Patton said in 1943, "Ike wants to be president so badly you can taste it."

Even though Eisenhower's strenuous battle with Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio for the 1952 nomination belied his claim of disinterested public service, the media never questioned his motives. If Mr. Powell becomes a candidate in 1996, political skeptics like ABC's Sam Donaldson are unlikely to give him the same free ride.

A more important difference, however, is changed political climate. By 1952, 20 years of Democratic dominance had made the Republicans truly desperate. In 1948, after Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 death and a sweep of Congress in 1946, Republican leaders thought they would have no trouble unseating an unpopular Harry Truman. But the Democratic president pulled off the greatest upset in American political history. Four years later, they rejected Mr. Republican himself, Bob Taft, to embrace the aloof Eisenhower as their savior.

Today, Colin Powell's best hope lies in his appeal to the followers of Ross Perot. These independent voters hold the political balance of power. Distrusting politicians in both camps, they could well be a decisive factor in persuading the Republicans to nominate Colin Powell and present him to the nation as a current-day Eisenhower.

As the Republican candidate in 1996, Mr. Powell could take the high ground on issues such as reducing the national deficit and curbing the runaway entitlements that appeal so strongly to members of Mr. Perot's United We Stand. Like Ike in 1952, Mr. Powell could transcend partisanship and seek election as a candidate of all the people.

Robert A. Divine, professor of American history at the University of Texas at Austin, is author of "Eisenhower and the Cold War." He wrote this article for Newsday.

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