General awaits call to storm White House

US presidential race: The architect of the allies' Gulf war victory could be the hero that disillusioned voters desperately seek
"I want a hero," sang Byron, "an uncommon want,

When every year and month sends forth a new one."

Forrest Gump; Rocky and Rambo; Clint Eastwood in the role of the solitary avenger: these have been America's contemporary heroes. Ronald Reagan's genius lay in knowing how to transform the blur between the movies and the real world into electoral gold.

Colin Powell's rare political asset, the one he will seek most avidly to exploit should he decide to run for the presidency next year, is that his life precedes art, that his personal story is a Hollywood blockbuster waiting to happen. And it is his political good fortune that the planets are aligned in such a way right now as to present a quality political outsider with a unique opportunity to storm the White House.

As poll after poll has shown, the public is disillusioned with those who govern, deeply possessed of a sense of national decline. They are thirsting for a flesh-and-blood hero. This week he broke the two-year interview silence that followed his retirement from the army in 1993. We now know the general is willing: he would love to become President. He claims he has not heard "the calling" yet, but a man in the public eye does not flirt with the electorate if he lacks the desire to obtain the most seductive prize in politics.

He says he has "the skills to do the job''; he confesses neither of the two parties completely fits him yet; he suggests the time is ripe for a third party to claim "the sensible centre"; he teases that "Forrest Gump Colin Powell" will make up his mind whether to run at the end of his two-month book tour, which will combine a chance to add to his $6m (pounds 3.9m) advance an opportunity to survey the electoral terrain.

In talking about his book, My American Journey, he will be drawing attention to a life that is a classic fulfilment of the American Dream: the son of Jamaican immigrants, brought up in Harlem, who, through work and perseverance, rose to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, head of the world's mightiest military force. For whites he is not a Jesse Jackson but a Mandela figure, whose all-American virtues transcend colour. For blacks he is a role-model, an admirer of Martin Luther King who does not deny the existence of racism in America but whose example extols the triumph of self-esteem over adversity.

But on the strength of his soldierly image alone the latest polls show that were he to run as an independent he would trail Bill Clinton and Bob Dole by a narrow margin. As a Republican candidate he would defeat Mr Clinton by 10 points. When the public gets to see General Powell performing on the public stage, as they will to saturation levels in coming weeks, they will quickly identify qualities of leadership, self-possession, gravitas and charm unmatched by all the other declared presidential candidates.

The question is: how does the general mean to plot his path to the White House? Indications are that his heart tells him to go independent, his head Republican. The statements he has made in recent days show he distrusts what he calls "rigid ideology from any direction"; that he is disturbed by "the class and racial undertones" beneath the rhetoric of the right wing and put off by the "patronising liberalism" of the left.

Yet he has left the door open to the Republicans, claiming the party is wider and more moderate than one might think from listening to Newt Gingrich and the Christian right.

Another question the general will be asking himself is whether he wishes to sink to the inevitable political trickery an election demands and expose himself to the media scrutiny that goes with the campaign territory. Reporters have started to ask whether he behaved altogether nobly during the Iran- Contra affair; whether he failed to act early enough on information he personally received on the US Army's most shameful deed in the Vietnam War, the My Lai massacre.

For now the general is weighing up, evaluating. Those who know him well say there is only one thing certain: if he runs, he will do so only once he is as certain as he was before embarking on the Gulf war that the odds are stacked heavily in his favour. Asked by Time this week whether he would bring to his politics his celebrated all-or-nothing "Powell Doctrine" of war, he replied: "You don't do it to fool around. You do it to win. And I think that's a pretty good rule for life as well as for military operations."