A soldier with presidential vision

Colin Powell is not yet running for America's top job - but he is in training. John Lichfield met him; 'My impression is that Clinton's getting the hang of it at last'
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The Independent Online
General Powell, aren't you too nice to be a Republican? The question, although borrowed from a comment in his own book, takes the general a little by surprise. He looks irritated for a second; but then grins triumphantly.

It is true, he concedes, that many of his political pronouncements - pro abortion, pro welfare, pro gun-control, even, relatively speaking, pro Bill Clinton - make him an unusual Republican for the 1990s. He hasn't decided yet, he insists, whether he is a Republican. Or even whether he is running for president. He has taken non-Republican positions - and some rather more typically conservative ones - because he believes in them. This, the general implies, is also unusual for politicians in the 1990s.

The real point is - he now becomes animated - the real point is that despite these unRepublican positions, he is very popular with American voters, and very popular with Republicans. "All those guys, Dole, Gramm, Buchanan, they are all running on issues which are supposedly meat and drink to Republican primary voters. OK, then it's up to them to explain why I'm right up there in the polls and the others, Dole apart, are in single figures. How do they explain that?"

In theory General Colin Luther Powell is sticking by his word. He will not announce a decision on whether to enter the 1996 presidential race until next month. But the general is clearly, infectiously, a man on a roll. His book tour of America shattered all records. With 1.4 million copies in print, A Soldier's Way, the story of how a poor black boy from the Bronx became America's top general, may become, the Bible apart, the non-fiction best-seller of all time.

As the Republican nominee, he would be unarguably devastating. He would blow President Clinton out of the water (Republican votes plus black votes equals no contest). But before meeting the general in his London hotel room yesterday, I clung to the unfashionable view that he would not run next year: it was not possible for a man with his views, especially a black man, to win the Republican nomination. And to run as an independent and win would be impossible: no one has achieved it since George Washington.

General Powell, I thought, would ultimately agree on both these points. He would transfer his famous Powell Doctrine from the military to the political sphere: "Only take on clearly defined and achievable objectives and attack them with overwhelming force."

Listening to the general yesterday, it appears that I am right on the second point and hopelessly wrong on the first. General Powell's whole demeanour is that of a man savagely bitten by the presidential bug. He will not run as an independent, but he is clearly inclined to run as a Republican.

The book tour, he says disarmingly, is a dry run for a possible campaign: to see whether a man "who, up to now, only wanted to succeed as a soldier, can work up the same passion about politics". How does he feel so far? "I manage to get through the days. I enjoy myself."

But why? Why does he want to be president? What would a President Powell do? The scores of press clippings on previous Powell interviews are strangely mute on this point. So is the book (often moving but, equally often, frustratingly bland). In his final chapter, Powell tell us that he wants to rediscover a "sensible centre" in American politics; that "we have to start thinking of America as a family"; that "I would enter because I believed I could do a better job than the other candidates of solving the nation's problems."

I suggest this is rather vague. General Powell grows a little irritated again. He has laid out policy positions, he says, but they do not create headlines because they are generally sensible. First of all, the general says, he wants to reaffirm America's commitment to capitalist, free-market economics: he wants a country which keeps the government off the backs of the people.

But, just to be specific for a moment, how would a President Powell square the triangle of reduced taxes (something he supports), increased public investment in education, etc (something he supports), and reducing the US federal budget deficit (something everybody supports). The general says he has already gone on record that a Powell presidency would challenge the huge untouchables in the US budget: the nearly 50 per cent that goes every year on state pensions and health care for the poor and elderly. Although he believes these things should continue to exist, he implies that enormous savings should be possible.

But he suggests that detailed legislative programmes are not the stuff of presidential politics - and he may be right. Americans vote for presidents they feel comfortable with, people they can imagine inviting into their sitting-rooms. A president is not a prime minister, General Powell says. He is sovereign, head of state, head of the armed forces and also head of government. The three presidents he served never quite managed to keep all four plates spinning, he implies.

Reagan and Bush were perhaps wanting as heads of government. Clinton has found it difficult to be taken seriously as head of state and sovereign. "But my impression is that he's getting the hang of it as last."

Isn't this an unusual compliment from a potential political rival? General Powell laughs with both shoulders: he is not, he says, a politician, not yet.

Beyond that, he says, he has a vision for America which falls into three parts: "I have a vision of a compassionate country, in which the wealthy are allowed to be wealthy but do not object to helping those less fortunate than themselves. I have a vision of a country which is finally able to face and fight its racial problems. I have a vision of a country which is willing to lead a world which would be free."

The language - with its conscious recollection of Martin Luther King - is interesting. Colin Powell is sometimes accused of being a white man's black man. This is not really fair. Unlike many successful American blacks he does not deny his roots or the sacrifices of others, Martin Luther King included, who helped some American blacks to escape northern ghettos and southern apartheid. Powell's whole career, as recited in his autobiography, is an effort to prove that a black man could succeed on equal terms in the white world.

This is possibly the real explanation for the temptation of Colin Powell: he wants to be not the first black president but the first president who happens to be black. His troubles, of course, are only starting. Whatever the polls say now, the Republican primary campaign will be every bit as nasty and bruising as Powell's friends are telling him. There are 13 Powell maxims printed at the end of his book. I suggest that the most appropriate to his present dilemma is the fifth: "Be careful what you choose. You may get it."

No, no, the general says, he is sticking with the first: "It ain't as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning."