Powell's departure allows public life outside politics

November 12, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- He could be secretary of state. He could head a foundation or university or philanthropic organization. He could travel the country making speeches. And, even though he insisted it was not an option, he could still change his mind and take the No. 2 spot on a Republican ticket next year.

When Colin L. Powell called his closest friends to his home Monday night to tell them it was over, one of them told him, no, it was just the beginning of the next chapter of his life.

And in the post-presidential-frenzy phase of his American journey, as invitations for positions and public appearances begin to pour in, the retired general with the almost limitless popularity faces almost limitless options.

As he bowed out of the presidential race on Wednesday, Mr. Powell offered a rough outline of where he goes from here.

He said he would remain a private citizen and devote his energies to charitable and educational activities, particularly those helping disadvantaged children.

He made it clear, though, that he was not going to curl up behind a desk and never be heard from again. He vowed to remain in public life and "continue to speak out forcefully on the issues of the day." He said he wanted to be a force within the Republican Party and "try to assist the party in broadening its appeal."

Now the question is, just what kind of public figure will Colin Powell, the new Republican, be? What kind of role will this refreshingly nonpolitical figure fashion for himself in the political world?

"He can do it whatever way he says he wants to," says former Bush aide Mary Matalin, "and everyone will fall to their knees and thank him for doing it."

Ms. Matalin and other political analysts believe that Mr. Powell's talents would be best spent continuing on the speaking circuit. "As a speaker, he is blow-you-away good," says Ms. Matalin, who is the co-host of a talk show on CNBC. "He's a guy who will have a movable bully pulpit."

But while Mr. Powell has been raking in up to $60,000 a speech since his 1993 retirement -- supplementing the $6 million advance he received for his book -- some Republicans hope that he'll use his considerable appeal to make money for his new party at fund-raisers.

"Frankly, I think he has the potential to be a moneymaking machine," says GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. "He would be an unbelievable resource. He literally could raise millions and millions and millions. That's how he could do real good and make a real difference."

'The correct role'

But few think that that is likely, or even advisable, since the general's appeal has been his distance from the nitty gritty of politics and the partisan fray.

"One of the conservative tenets," says former Reagan official Donald Devine, "is, things are better done outside of government."

Mr. Devine, who is advising Sen. Bob Dole's campaign, believes that Mr. Powell would be most valuable to the party pursuing a leadership role in the private sector with charitable or educational groups, as the general himself suggested.

"That's exactly the correct role for him right now," says Mr. Devine, who ran unsuccessfully for a Maryland congressional seat last year. "His attraction is being above politics. He would be much more effective as a doer, as a role model, than as a preacher."

At his news conference, Mr. Powell said he wanted to help reshape the GOP, a party he said contains "more moderation than one might believe from some of the rhetoric." He said he hoped to move the Republican Party closer to the "spirit of Lincoln" and make it more hospitable to blacks.

With that in mind, he could re-energize the moderate wing of the Republican Party.

"Moderate Republicans who kept their heads down for a long time because of the ascendancy of the right will take heart," says Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and longtime civil rights advocate. "All of a sudden, that part of the party that was headless and dispirited has a powerful new enlistee."

Morella is encouraged

One of the most liberal Republicans in Congress, Rep. Constance A. Morella of Maryland, says she was encouraged by Mr. Powell's description of himself as fiscally responsible in the Republican tradition, but with a social conscience.

"That's where the American people are. That's where Colin Powell is," says Ms. Morella. "Because of his national leadership, people will be looking to him for direction. I think he'll give it and I think he'll activate the moderates."

Some believe he already has. Ms. Matalin says moderate Republicans, who "have been depressed for a while," have been "invigorated" merely by the fact that Mr. Powell signed up as a Republican and "exposed that the majority of the party is center-right instead of right-right."

He may have a tougher time exciting blacks about the Republican Party, say those in both political camps.

"Blacks are not about to follow him into the Republican Party simply because he's Colin Powell," says Ron Walters, a Howard University professor of political science.

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