Gulf war general eyes a path to the White House

Presidency/ Powell for '96?

DURING a speech in Texas earlier this year Colin Powell recalled a conversation with a Russian general who was struggling to adapt to the political changes in his country.

" 'Vy didn't you tell us? Vy didn't you warn us?' " General Powell said, mimicking the Russian. " 'All kinds of politicians: they give speeches, and they shout and scream and they are reactionary and liars and thieves and crooks and criminals!' And I say, 'Welcome to democracy, babe! It's just like Washington. That's what it's all about. You're going to learn to live with it, and you're going to love it.' "

Having retired from the military after a 35-year career that saw him rise to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the post from which he ran the Gulf war, General Powell has found his love for the liars, the thieves and the crooks to be such that he is contemplating a run for the White House.

Six months ago, after he had almost single-handedly defused the Haiti crisis by persuading General Raoul Cedras to step down, Washington was abuzz with unfounded speculation that General Powell would be a candidate for the 1996 presidential election. But in numerous speeches since then - the word is that he charges $60,000 (£37,500) a time - he has flirted with the prospect and teased his audiences, sounding much more like a would-be politician than a fading old soldier. Today the evidence is overwhelming that the general is willing.

Speaking in Salem, Massachussetts, before an adoring crowd of 1,200, many of whom were wearing "Powell '96" stickers, he said a characteristic of the times was that Americans were "channel-surfing politically". When a member of the audience took him up on his remark and asked him whether it was necessary to be a Republican or a Democrat to run for the White House, he replied: "I checked the constitution very carefully and you do not have to belong to a political party."

A few days later in Tampa, Florida, he was asked how he had felt when he relinquished the Joint Chiefs of Staff job. It had not been easy, he said. "It's hard to get a much better title than that." But then he dangled the thought: "There are one or two . . ."

General Powell let the cat out of the bag two weeks ago after USA Today ran a story saying he was "not currently inclined to run in 1996". The next day he phoned Bernard Shaw, a CNN anchorman, to complain that there was no truth to the report; he later issued a statement saying that he was not going "to rule anything in or rule anything out".

Confirming the thrust of the general's innuendos, a Washington insider who knows him well said in an interview last week: "Don't doubt it. Powell would very much like to be President. The idea of being America's first black President appeals to him immensely. He sees himself very much as a unifying national figure."

That is precisely how he is viewed by Citizens for Colin Powell, an ad hoc movement that has been sprouting enthusiastic adherents around the country in the past year. The movement's founder, Charles Kelly, believes General Powell is the only man on the political horizon with the stature and experience successfully to define America's role in the new world order and, at home, to address the troubling sense of moral decline.

"The political process in this country has become ugly to the point of obscenity," Mr Kelly said. "I speak to many people and the one thing that emerges most profoundly is the distrust, the corrosive cynicism on the part of the American public towards politics and politicians. But the word associated with Powell is trust."

The opinion polls back up Mr Kelly's judgement. Two-thirds of the population view him in a positive light. Newsweek has called him "the most respected figure in American public life". Sir Robin Renwick, the British ambassador, said he had been to a few Washington Redskins football games with General Powell. "Other senior Washington politicians were there but the only man whom the crowd rose to applaud when we arrived at the VIP box was Powell. He's an immensely charismatic figure."

If there is no doubt that General Powell, with his Mandela-like capacity to transcend race and rise above the political fray, is presidential material, it remains unclear how he would plot his path to the White House. Mr Kelly, a retired investment banker who was instrumental in persuading Dwight Eisenhower to run for office in the Fifties, believes his best bet is to throw his hat into the Republican ring.

The problem there is that he is not a member of the Republican Party and while, according to his friends, he served happily under President Bush he is not convinced by the radical turn the Republicans have taken in the Gingrich era. On affirmative action and abortion, likely to be the two hottest election issues, he is closer to President Clinton than to leading Republicans.

Yet General Powell could seek to cool Republican fires by running for the vice-presidency alongside, say, Bob Dole, the favourite to win the Republican nomination. That is one option frequently discussed in Washington, not least because Mr Dole is 71 now and it is considered unlikely that he would seek a second presidential term.

Another option would be to run as an independent, as a Ross Perot with gravitas. There is no shortage of backers willing to provide him with the necessary campaign money and the general's tantalising asides in recent months have left no doubt that the idea appeals to him.

The critical judgement he will have to make is whether the conditions are right to launch a strike. The conventional wisdom in Washington is that General Powell will make a presidential bid only if this time next year both the chosen Republican candidate and Mr Clinton appear weak.

The one certain thing, his friends say, is that if he runs for office he will apply the lesson learnt in a lifetime of military service: if you go in, do so with conviction and overwhelming power; employ the methods not of Vietnam but of the Gulf war.

For the moment he is following in Eisenhower's footsteps. "What is it, Ike, I hear about this business of your running for president?" his friend General Douglas MacArthur asked him during the period when Mr Kelly and others were still trying to woo him into politics. "Oh, general, I am completely non-plussed. I have no idea what any of this is about." MacArthur shot him a telling glance and said, "That's the way to play it, Ike."

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