The man who might be President: Colin Powell, who made his name during the Gulf war as America's top soldier, may yet become the country's first black leader, writes Rupert Cornwell

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There are things that can turn even the wisest old soldier's head. One is to be hailed as a skilled diplomat, whose deft reading of the military psyche spared his country the bloodbath of a contested invasion of Haiti. Another is to be consistently awarded the highest approval rating of any American in public life. A third is to find yourself with a lead of 20 per cent in an imagined electoral match-up with a sitting president.

This is Washington's most tantalising political question: is Colin Luther Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, planning a run for the White House?

For a few illusory moments last month, under the chandeliers of the East Room, it seemed he had already got there. Standing behind a rostrum bearing the presidential seal, Powell was talking about the mission that had persuaded the Haitian junta to give in. What he did not dwell on, but which rapidly emerged, was how he personally had convinced General Raoul Cedras and his wife that for a patriot, peaceful surrender under those circumstances was an honourable course. The intervention, by common consent, broke the deadlock. By equally common consent, it has brought the prospect of America's first black president that much closer.

Not since Dwight Eisenhower more than 40 years ago has a soldier's shadow lain so long across American politics. The phenomenon is nothing new: Washington, Jackson, Taylor and Grant exchanged military careers for the presidency long before Eisenhower. Unlike them, Powell did not make his reputation as a victorious field commander against foreign or rebel armies.

But in this foul-tempered era, Powell is a strategist's dream. When 'politician' is the dirtiest word in the country, he stands as the straight arrow outsider. Yet none is shrewder in understanding, and using, power.

And then, of course, he is not white. Colin Powell is a role model whose life story, if it were fiction, would be incredible: born in the Bronx in 1937 to Jamaican immigrants, decorated war hero from Vietnam, self-made intellectual and respected military strategist, now ensconced at home writing his memoirs, indulging his passion for repairing elderly Volvo cars -and mulling over the most important decision of his life.

It is hard to construct a more perfect candidate. His private life is beyond reproach. He has wit. ('We do deserts, not mountains,' he said, explaining his opposition to American involvement in Bosnia.) His hands are legendary for their safety, and he has proven ability at avoiding damage in Washington's brutal power plays.

If he ran as a Republican, he would bring a chunk of the traditionally Democratic black vote with him. His dowry to the Democrats would be boiler-plated foreign policy and defence expertise. And either way, he would ease white America's guilty conscience over race.

He personifies not the embittered, threatening black that represents the nightmare of white suburbia, but the more relaxed, better-educated tradition that his parents - once British subjects, though never he - brought from the Caribbean.

'Blacks in the West Indies were slaves, too,' Powell has said, 'but slavery was abolished earlier, they were more than just indentured people. In the US, blacks were oppressed, totally oppressed.' And, most precious of all in the land of instant fame and instant oblivion, he has unrivalled name recognition.

His remarks on the subject of whether he will run are latter-day Enigma Variations. 'I would like to have an opportunity to serve my country in another way,' he said when he retired in autumn 1993.

Last month, he was at the Frankfurt book fair, drumming up European interest in the autobiography that could be a perfect springboard for a presidential bid. Those who have peeked at the first two-thirds claim it is 'inspirational'. Had he any such plans? No, the General replied, 'not in the book, no.' And this week, at one of those dollars 60,000-a-time speaking engagements with which he pads his service pension, Powell was pressed again. 'Political office I don't rule out, it might be something in the future.'

How similar to that last soldier to occupy the White House. Back in the late Forties, the story goes, Eisenhower's old friend General Douglas MacArthur once went to see him. 'Ike, what's this business of your running for president?' Eisenhower produced that disarming smile of his. He was 'completely nonplussed,' he told MacArthur. 'I have no idea what any of this is about.' MacArthur gave him an up-and-under look: 'That's the way to play it, Ike.'

And that is pretty much how Colin Powell is playing it. Like Eisenhower, he has no formal party allegiance - although Ike's fondness for the company of business leaders gave a strong clue to his own. Powell's preference is unfathomable. He has served Republican presidents as National Security Adviser to Ronald Reagan, and then as chairman of the Joint Chiefs under George Bush, the first black to hold the top uniformed job at the Pentagon.

But he has also been happy to serve Democrat masters.

He has always minimised the importance of his skin colour: 'I've tried to allow it to be someone else's problem, not mine.' But in America race can never be ignored, even by those who appear to transcend it. Returning from his first tour of duty in Vietnam at Christmas 1963 to visit his wife, Alma, and their infant son, Michael, in Alabama, Powell recalled decades later, he was appalled at the 'open fight' over civil rights across the South, 'a fight that had to be won'. The next year, in the only confirmed political affiliation of Powell's career, his elderly VW Beetle bore an 'All The Way With LBJ' bumper sticker. According to his semi-official biographer, Howard Means, the right-wing ranting at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston left him cold.

Today's Democrat in the White House is still said to nourish hopes of getting Powell on board as Secretary of State to replace Warren Christopher, as part of the reshuffle of the Clinton national security team that is widely expected after November's mid-term elections.

That would have disadvantages for Powell. It would not just mean tipping his party hand. Powell, his friends increasingly believe, may already be finding it hard to resist the pressures to run in his own right. Thus the studied neutrality.

And so the General ponders: courted by all, aligned with none. Probably Powell has not made up his mind.

The scenarios are endless. Barring a visit to a doomed Bill Clinton by Democratic men in grey suits, he cannot run as a Democrat, at least in 1996.

A Republican could yet catch the national imagination. Powell is most naturally an independent.

Ross Perot, despite all his imperfections, won a fifth of the popular vote in 1992. But Powell's personal assets do not include the dollars 2bn that Perot was able to devote to his campaign. Even Powell would be taking a huge risk running as an independent, against the resources and organisational firepower of the two major parties.

Once he was in the running he would have to propound policies on abortion and taxes and the other issues that have ordinary politicians wriggling. He would have to compromise and avoid, under media goading, publicly losing a temper as fierce in private as Bill Clinton's. Powell's private life would be picked apart.

But none of that may matter if the strange, sour mood that grips the country continues. The weakness of Mr Clinton's standing may be irretrievable. The Republican field looks hopelessly split. By 1996 voters may searching harder than ever for a saviour. Powell may yet emerge as living proof that that critically ill patient - the American Dream - is not yet extinct.

An embryonic Draft Powell movement is already campaigning in 20 states. If it succeeds, America may be led into the new millennium by its first black president.

(Photograph omitted)