Like Ike? Not exactly, but Powell's similarities are striking

October 03, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

Colin Powell wears an invisible campaign button on his chest. It says, ''I'm Like Ike.'' Not since Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was still a non-candidate for the presidency 44 years ago has an American's military career and personality and seeming reluctance to play politics as usual come together to create such popularity.

At this stage of the 1952 presidential campaign General Eisenhower was still in uniform. But, like General Powell today, Eisenhower was being sized up against GOP presidential hopefuls and against the incumbent president, Harry Truman, who had not yet announced he would not run in 1952.

In mid-October 1951, Gallup Poll interviewers asked people to pick the man they most preferred to win in 1952 from a list of three Democrats (President Truman, Vice President Alben Barkley, Rep. Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr.), five Republicans (Sen. Robert Taft, Gov. Earl Warren, former Gov. Harold Stassen, Gov. Thomas Dewey and Gen. Douglas MacArthur) and Ike, who had not yet confessed he was a Republican. The general got 28 percent of the vote, more than double what the parties' leaders, Truman and Taft, scored.

Ike's trial heats

In "trial heats" pitting Taft against Truman, the Ohio senator won by only 45 percent to 42 percent. Ike beat Truman 64 to 28. Part of the differential was due to a personality gap. Taft was often pictured frowning, gloomy. Ike was typically shown smiling. He had a world-class grin. (Political pros were unimpressed. That same month Republican county chairmen voted for Taft over Ike by 1,037 to 375.)

That divide is somewhat like today's. Sen. Bob Dole, whose public persona is often, well, doleful, is the solid favorite of party professionals and a slight favorite among the party's rank-and-file voters. But he doesn't do as well in general election matchups against President Clinton as does the genial General Powell. As the Republican Party nominee, the general beats the president by from 10 to 15 percentage points in the most recent national polls. The president tops Bob Dole by 5 or 6 points.

hTC Like Ike, General Powell is left of his party's leading presidential contender, and has been saying so. Senator Taft was known as "Mr. Republican" when the congressional wing of the party was at its conservative zenith.

General Eisenhower even testified before Congress in support of Truman administration foreign policies opposed by the almost isolationist wing of the Republican Party led by Senator Taft and former President Herbert Hoover.

Mum's the word

On most other issues, though, Eisenhower's views were unknown. It was his career (as Allied military leader in Europe during and again after World War II), his character and his personality that attracted Americans. For his 1950 Broadway musical based on a Truman diplomat, "Call Me Madam," Irving Berlin wrote a tune called "They Like Ike," in which the general's appeal was summed up in his likability. Likability was deemed so central to Ike's candidacy that when he finally agreed to run, his campaign's slogan was a twist on the Berlin lyrics. Supporters sported "I Like Ike" buttons. Public reaction to General Powell's book tour suggests that his popularity is also based in large part on the fact that people just like him.

Key endorsements missing

But war record, character, personality, sunny smile and other Ike-like similarities aren't the whole story. Unlike Eisenhower, Powell has no political heavyweight support. Those working to "draft" Mr. Powell are not central role players in the political arena. Among those who at this stage of the 1952 campaign were openly working to draft Ike were five U.S. senators, six governors, a number of corporate CEOs -- and the Republican Establishment's favorite newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune.

Unless General Powell attracts some Ike-like support of that caliber, he could have a tough time wresting the Republican presidential nomination from the Taft-like Bob Dole. Even with it, he's no shoo-in. He'll have to fight for it. That would also be Ike-like. With all his assets, and after beating Taft in six of the nine primaries they both entered, and with mid-1952 polls showing Senator Taft losing to a Democratic presidential candidate but Eisenhower winning big, delegates to the Republican National Convention still chose Ike over Taft by a vote of only 595 to 500.

Theo Lippman Jr. is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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