Trying Powell on for Size

September 17, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- The idea that Colin Powell is a president in need only of an inauguration is a product of the media's boredom and of Mr. Powell's deft application to the media of Bismarck's dictum that you can do anything with children if you will play with them.

In their current swooning many journalists are asking, with yearning, whether Mr. Powell is ''another Eisenhower.'' So far, he is less an Eisenhower than a Chauncey Gardiner. Gardiner is the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski's novel ''Being There,'' and the movie based on it. Chance, a gardener with no last name, is struck by a limousine. Asked who he is, he says, ''I am Chance, the gardener,'' and in the first of many misunderstandings is wafted into high places -- into the president's presence, onto television talk shows -- as Chauncey Gardiner, savant.

When asked about anything -- the economy, for example -- he talks about gardening: ''Everything has its season'' or ''As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.'' A nation eager to follow a leader who is not too demanding and to subscribe to a faith that is not too rigorous, assumes that his homey maxims are actually subtle analogies and parables. The president quotes him. Television lionizes him. Eventually the president's men conclude that he is indeed a blank slate -- a personable, telegenic blank slate -- and hence vice- presidential material.

One recent Chauncey Gardiner in our national circus was David Souter as nominee to the Supreme Court. George Bush wanted to avoid another brawl of the sort that attended the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Hence Mr. Souter. He had a slight record and in his confirmation hearing he said little, which suited the shell-shocked Senate Judiciary Committee just fine. To calm conservatives' worries, Bush operatives whispered, really sound -- trust us.'' Oh, well.

The twin premises of Powellmania are that he is a leader and the country is not particular about where it is led. Perhaps both are true. However, regarding leadership, consider two Powell statements that fuel speculation that he is considering running for president as an independent.

This is from his book: ''Neither of the two major parties . . . fits me comfortably in its present state.''

This is from his interview with Barbara Walters: ''I have not been able to find a perfect fit in either of the two existing parties.''

Well, of course. Neither party has evolved as it has over the years in the hope of pleasing Mr. Powell by fitting him perfectly. Each exists to rally a governing coalition for a continental nation. What nominee has ever felt entirely comfortable with his party? But real leaders use their discomfort, if they and it are serious, creatively, to make their parties fit them.

In 1896 a young two-term Democratic congressman from Nebraska was so uncomfortable with his party's commitment to laissez faire and minimal government that he ignited its national convention with his rhetoric and won the first of three presidential nominations. William Jennings Bryan lost all three elections but helped transform his party into the engine that built the modern regulatory state.

At the 1960 Republican convention, Arizona's junior senator was uncomfortable with the ideological flaccidity of the Eisenhower years and of Eisenhower's running mate, who was the convention's nominee. So Barry Goldwater went to the podium and thundered, ''Let's grow up, conservatives! If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let's go to work.'' They did, and in 1964 they nominated him. He carried only six states but sired the ideological party now driving the nation's political conversation.

Both Bryan and Goldwater were, in the short term, losers. They also were leaders. Both were at home in politics, an arena of mass persuasion. The military, Mr. Powell's home all of his adult life, is of course not free of politics, but it is essentially a command structure, and political persuasion takes place in small settings. Is Mr. Powell ready to play in a new arena?

Eisenhower, a gifted politician after a life in the military, ran as a tTC Republican in part because he strongly disapproved of the party's vestigial isolationism, which he associated with the man who otherwise would have been nominated, Robert Taft. If Mr. Powell refuses to run as a Republican because the party is not a ''perfect fit,'' he may not be a Chauncey Gardiner but he certainly is no Eisenhower.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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