Powell: the political general His political acumen is viewed as both a plus and a minus

September 24, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Colin L. Powell travels the country, testing the political waters as he sells books by the truckload, a crucial question hovers over Operation Publicity Storm:

Does the gulf war hero have the makings of a president?

Many who have worked closely with the retired general as he leap-frogged up military and political ranks admire him greatly, describing him as charismatic and inspiring, smart and steady, a presence that fills a room.

Mostly, they say, he is as impressive and astute a political player as they have seen.

But that description cuts both ways. And as Mr. Powell, 58, is seen more and more as a serious presidential prospect, some colleagues and military experts are expressing reservations about his style of leadership, especially in the context of leading the nation.

They say he is more politician than visionary and too cautious to take even reasonable risks.

"He keeps everything smoothed down," says one former sub-Cabinet-level official who worked closely with Mr. Powell for several years. "But that's not a leader. That's an exceptionally good staff person. That's someone you want to be your chief of staff."

At the same time, this critic says, "You can't help but like the guy."

Indeed, the Harlem-born four-star general with the big, wheezy laugh is affable, relaxed, at once self-deprecating and supremely self-possessed. Most appealing of all, he is kind of normal.

This is a man who, at Nelson Mandela's inauguration last year, took off his jacket and tie to sing old doo-wops -- "In the Still of the Night," for starters -- with a group of teen-agers he met on a street corner.

He works on old Volvos. He curses and sprinkles his conversation with the Yiddish he learned as a child growing up in the South Bronx of the 1940s and '50s.

A sense of belonging

His success story, detailed in his new book, "My American Journey," is patriotic and inspiring.

Born to hard-working Jamaican immigrants, young, directionless Colin Powell, a below-average student, finds the sense of belonging he craves in an ROTC program at the City College of New York.

His Army career includes two tours in Vietnam. And though he returns to soldiering from time to time after that, he spends most of the next two decades in political Washington, earning powerful postings in the Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1989, he's tapped as the nation's youngest, and first African-American, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Washington seemed to fit Gen. Colin Powell as smoothly as his crisp, star-studded uniform. He came to be known as a solid manager, a facilitator, a man who, in his own words, "tended to get what I set out to get."

When Richard Armitage, now one of Mr. Powell's closest friends, came to the Pentagon in 1981 as an assistant defense secretary, recalls, "I looked around, kind of nosed around new people, said 'Who's got the key around here? Who can say what's going on?' And they'd say, 'There's a brand new brigadier down there by the name of Powell. Check it out. He knows a lot.'

"I needed someone who could give me the Reader's Digest version of who did what to whom and who made the trains run.

"And there he was."

While regard for his competency and accomplishments is almost universal, even among critics, some see in his career more of a talent for detail and bureaucratic finesse than broad and bold creative thought.

'Very much a man of process'

"He's very much a man of process," says Eliot A. Cohen, a military specialist at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

He notes that Mr. Powell's criticism of Bill Clinton's national security meetings -- "like graduate-student bull sessions," Mr. Powell writes in his new book -- did not pertain to the president's goals, but rather his management style.

Mr. Powell, in an interview in his Alexandria, Va., office doesn't quarrel with that assessment.

"I'm good at process," he says. "I have worked in bureaucracy for many, many years and for many of the assignments I had, my job involved solving problems, not just screaming at problems. That's what leadership is all about -- solving problems.

"I am not an ideologue. If you're looking for an ideologue, that's not me.

"Do I have a vision? Yeah. I have shown vision in the course of my military career."

As examples, he cites his work in the Bush administration,

coming up with a new strategy for the armed forces after the Cold War, and finding ways to cut the armed forces by 25 percent to 30 percent.

During the Bush administration, Mr. Powell was a driving force of the "base force" strategy, a plan to pare the military to the minimum force capable of meeting its responsibilities.

The plan took a bite out of the military, but it is described by analysts as an incremental change, not a radical restructuring.

Need to articulate a vision

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