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A soldier's tale points the way for virgin army

Journalists who have been working here for a few years keep telling me that they have the most fun covering presidential election campaigns. Yet they concede that next year's does not hold too much promise. I was chatting to a couple of old hands from the Washington Post who said that if all goes according to form and the election turns out be a two-horse race between Bill Clinton and Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, it was going to be a bit of a bore.

President Clinton has charm but no gravitas. Mr Dole has gravitas but no charm. In search of a man who combines both, we strolled over to the Grand Hyatt Hotel to see Colin Powell speak at a lunch organised by an outfit called Best Friends.

The setting was a cavernous conference room, deep underground. But this was no military bunker. Six hundred pubescent black schoolgirls sat primly around 100 tables, chaperoned by 60 teachers. In the centre of each table a pink, heart-shaped, helium-filled balloon danced on a piece of string. Dominating the room from the back of the stagewas a giant pink heart. The name-tags we all had to wear bore still more pink hearts.

So what was Best Friends all about? Close attention to the schoolgirl speaker at the microphone revealed that Best Friends was an organisation devoted to the cause of teenage sexual abstinence. "With the ongoing communication and involvement in this programme," said Jamila Moore of Woodrow Wilson High, "I can say with pride that I have been able to abstain from intimate and sexual relationships." The room rippled with applause. Jamila, who was about 15, looked a good bet to achieve the seemingly modest objective set out in Best Friends' manifesto - encouraging girls to restrain from sex until they have finished high school.

Jamila stepped down and Vanessa took the podium, followed by Sheri, Tiffany, Jhonnai, Tiana and Lolita. Each, it turned out, was reading out her essay in appreciation and praise of Best Friends. "Aids and teenage pregnancy is so common these days: Best Friends says this does not have to be; Abstinence is the best and only way."

And so on ... would this ever end? We had come to hear the redoubtable General Powell and had stumbled into a virgins' convention! The girls received prizes. They sang. They danced. Grown-ups ("Best Friends Role Models") addressed the girls. Miss America 1995 made an appearance, for heaven's sake!

"When I was little, my mother taught me that the last four letters of the word American spell 'I can'," Miss America said. "To be a citizen of our great country means you can be whatever you choose to be ... we can be as famous as any celebrity because we've all been given the same basic equipment, namely a mind and a heart."

This was turning into a Mel Brooks movie, an impression Mayor Marion Barry's unscripted appearance on stage - a fox in a hen-house came to mind - did little to dispel. The notoriously promiscuous mayor of Washington DC, who recently served time on a crack-cocaine charge, praised the girls' capacity to contain nature. Then more dancing, speeches, prizes and then, at last, General Powell took the stage.

He spoke for three and a half minutes. America had lost its moral compass, he said. Best Friends was helping American girls rediscover the true path. Self-respect was the key to contentment. "Drugs are wrong, premarital sex before you're ready for it is wrong." He was very proud to be associated with Best Friends, whose chairperson, was his wife, Alma, to whom he announced that he had been married for 33 years.

On our way back to our offices my colleagues and I sought to extract some political analysis from the crumbs the general had tossed us. Gravitas, he certainly had. Tact and charm, too. What he said was corny, but it hadn't sounded bogus. The best thing for America, I couldn't help reflecting, would be for Clinton, Dole and Gingrich to follow Best Friends' example and abstain.

John Carlin