Media blitz to put Colin Powell in nation's limelight

September 11, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Whether he is embarking on a campaign tryout or merely a campaign to sell a lot of books, Colin L. Powell is about to become the man of the moment.

Four years after the Persian Gulf war turned the charismatic, rock-ribbed army general into a four-star celebrity, General Powell this week launches his autobiography, "My American Journey," with extraordinary, what some have called unparalleled, fanfare. A parade of magazine covers, interviews with everyone from Barbara Walters to Jay Leno and a 25-city book tour will take him through Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs as well as bookstores all across the country.

"It's going to pale in comparison to Cal Ripken," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart of the Powell spotlight, "but it will eclipse everybody else."

So begins the defining of one of the most intriguing military and political figures of the day -- not just with a bang but, fittingly, with an all-out ground and airwaves attack.

The Powell media blitz, kicked off with a lengthy excerpt from the 613-page book in this week's Time magazine and continuing through late October, is likely to answer many of the questions about the retired general's positions on issues and events in his career that are still a mystery.

But it is not expected to answer the key question that will hang over this book tour from Washington, D.C., to St. Louis to Seattle.

Will he run for the presidency next year, and if so, as what -- a Republican or independent?

That will be addressed after the book tour, General Powell says in this week's issue of Time magazine.

In the interview, General Powell says he still has not decided, but adds: "I think I have the skills to do the job."

He also talks about his philosophy. "If I do enter politics in whatever form, I would try to make it as open a candidacy and as large a tent as the Republicans are fond of saying they have," he says.

For now, Powell-watchers will have to rely on polls that suggest the possible candidate's popularity and chances. The most recent survey, published last week by Newsweek, shows that if General Powell were the Republican nominee, he would win 51 (( percent of the vote compared with 41 percent for President Clinton. As an independent, he would win 21 percent of the vote, trailing Mr. Clinton with 36 percent and Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP front-runner, with 33 percent.

His fans will also have to content themselves with learning about his conservative principles and prescription for healing the woes of the nation, as well as the inspirational story of his rise from the working-class tenements of the South Bronx to the apex of the U.S. military as the first black American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"People are wondering what Forest Gump Colin Powell stands for," General Powell says in Time. "Well, they're about to find out, as I deal with the various issues that are out there and I become a public figure again."

The book, for which General Powell received a $6 million advance, is mum on such issues as abortion, immigration, capital punishment and welfare payments to unwed teens.

But, in a book tour that is being covered much like a presidential candidacy, General Powell is likely to be grilled on those issues -- and more. Already, ABC-TV has announced that in Ms. Walters' hourlong interview on "20/20" this Friday, the war hero will offer his views on abortion, gun control, prayer in school and affirmative action.

In speeches he has given around the country since leaving the Pentagon two years ago, earning up to $60,000 per talk, he has filled in some of the blanks, casting himself as a centrist on most domestic issues: personally against abortion, but also against an outright ban on abortion; opposed to quotas, but in favor of some sort of affirmative action; a strong proponent of families and traditional values, but wary of the religious right.

"I don't find yet that I fit neatly into either party," General Powell told a group of mutual-fund industry leaders in May. "I have very strong Republican leanings on economic matters and international affairs matters, but I'm still a New Deal kid from Harlem and the South Bronx. Franklin Roosevelt's picture was in home."

Many Powell admirers believe that, during this month-plus of scrutiny, the public will be looking less at the details of General Powell's belief system and more at the whole person.

"People want to confirm that he's indeed an unusual person, and has the potential for being a strong, political leader," says public relations executive Sheila Tate, a former Reagan and Bush aide who would like to see General Powell in the vice presidential slot of the Republican ticket.

Already, he's getting the kind of treatment -- and dissection -- accorded a serious candidate. In the past several months, several critical stories have appeared, challenging the myth of .. the man and his military ideology -- what has come to be known as the Powell doctrine.

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