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How Powell escaped the sorcerers' clutches

JIMMY CARTER said last week that Colin Powell's participation in next year's presidential election would have had a "cleansing effect" on American politics.

It was an interesting thing for a former Democratic president to say about a man pondering a run for the Republican nomination. But it came as no suprise. Mr Carter was expressing a national yearning for a leader of stature and conviction to step forward and clear out the rot in the United States' political establishment.

The American electorate may be divided over abortion, gun control and prayer in schools. But the vast majority are united in the belief that the politicians in Washington are driven more by the frenzy for re-election than zeal for the public good. There is a clamour, as the polls have overwhelmingly demonstrated, for the country's elected representatives to stop constructing their public images on the advice of marketing and advertising consultants, to stop pandering to the extremists and the big-business interests who finance their campaigns. Americans, the Powell experiment has shown, hunger for leaders who will be themselves.

The general spoke his mind. Refreshingly straightforward, he was self- deprecating, generous to his opponents and unafraid to respond to tricky questions with an "I don't know". No one has raised the heretical thought - as commentators cheerfully have in the case of Newt Gingrich - that his flirtation with the presidency was a mere gimmick to increase the sales of his autobiog raphy. Reduced to its essentials, the reason the general did not run was that he knew that (to use his own words) in the "down and dirty game" of electioneering this was precisely the sort of nasty accusation to which he would have been exposed. In the interests of securing victory, he might have felt obliged to demean himself by responding in kind.

The result of a curious poll in the Washington Post on Monday, two days before the general made his announcement, would have helped to persuade him that, barring death, the best way to preserve his reputation would be to stay out of politics. In the poll, which tested opinion on "outstanding" 20th-century American leaders, General Powell came a close fifth behind Franklin D Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Lagging far behind was President Clinton and, way down the list, Mr Gingrich.

The reason for the different responses to General Powell and the two most powerful men in US politics is that he is seen to be his own man and they come across as manufactured and insincere. In an article written before the general pulled out of the election race, Joe Klein of Newsweek warned him that if he ran he would be besieged by "technicians - people who 'know' politics".

"They'd tell you to test your 'message' with focus groups," Klein wrote, "and to prepare an advertising strategy ... They'd tell you where to go and whom to see. A certain amount of this is unavoidable. But make no mistake: these people are the disease the public wants cured." Who are "these people"? They are the pollsters, the "communication experts", the Washington wizards whose task it is to gauge what it is the public wants to hear and teach their political clients how to say it. President Clinton keeps four pollsters on the White House books. A few months ago he fired Stanley Greenberg, who is reported to have been paid more than $3m (pounds 1.9m) by the Democratic Party since the 1992 election, and replaced him with Dick Morris, who had previously been working with the Republicans. Mr Morris's skills are much prized by the president, who is said to owe his recent climb in the opinion polls to the magician's tactical advice. White House insiders acknowledge that after the President himself no one in the building has more influence than Mr Morris.

As for the self-styled Republican "revolutionaries" who control Congress, they are indebted to Frank Luntz, 33, a prodigy who almost single-handedly designed the "Contract with America" - the manifesto for change which, as Mr Gingrich has it, will transform not only America but the whole human race. What Mr Luntz did was gather together focus groups, typically a dozen or so men and women selected on their suitability as representatives of Mr and Mrs Average American Voter, and ask them a series of questions designed to elicit information on what scares them, what excites them, what words trigger which responses. Mr Luntz then processed his Pavlovian information and came up with a shopping list of 10 pleasingly digestible items called the Contract with (wits have dubbed it "the Contract on") America. Bob Livingston, a leading Republican congressman, credited him this year with making the Contract "something that was saleable".

The next step is to coach politicians in the art of good salesmanship. The key is to establish which words and gestures convey the necessary feel-good associations among voters. So Mr Luntz, like Mr Morris and other lesser luminaries in the pollster industry, borrows from the techniques used by advertisers of potato crisps to gauge, as precisely as technology allows, the reactions of voters to the speeches, phrases, words, smiles, suits of clothes used by members of Congress and the President.

In a memorandum leaked to the press earlier this year Mr Luntz instructed his Republican charges that it was imperative to convey the arguments in favour of cutting the welfare budget "in MORAL terms". "Americans know almost nothing about the budget," he said, "and what they think they know is often wrong."

Most Americans, certainly, know nothing about Mr Luntz and the other secret sorcerers who seek to shape and steer public perceptions. But they do know that the politicians are treating them with contempt.

In General Powell they saw someone who did not. They also thought they saw a leader who would act on his convictions and not on the promptings of professional manipulators. The lesson of Powell's triumphant - if unconsummated - dress rehearsal, is that the American people are not as ignorant as they seem, that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.