Rarely in politics anywhere can a "No" have resounded so loudly. In the short term, General Powell's decision to forgo the presidential race of 1996 leaves Bob Dole a racing certainty for the Republican nomination. A poll taken immediately afterwards showed support for the Senate majority leader jumping from 45 to 54 per cent among Republican voters, with none of his rivals beyond single figures. The other obvious winner is President Clinton himself, spared the prospect of facing the one potential challenger who beat him in every trial match-up.
Thus, barring intervention by the Rev Jesse Jackson, one of the most reviled presidents of recent times will have one of the easiest rides to renomination by his party. Whitewater, Paula Jones and Mr Clinton's famous inconstancy notwithstanding, he must now be odds-on favourite to retain the White House next year.
That very fact underscores the greater questions raised by the Powell withdrawal. Why do so many potentially excellent candidates refuse to run? And has the election system become so deformed that it now achieves the opposite of what it is supposed to do: pick the person best able to run the country?
The field of 1996 can be broken into not two, but three categories: the Democrats (consisting of Mr Clinton and, just possibly, the Rev Jackson), the 10 declared Republicans, and the no less long, but much weightier list of Republican notables who have opted out.
Of them, unarguably the third is on paper the most impressive. The former Cabinet members Dick Cheney, Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett and James Baker; the former Vice-President Dan Quayle; Governors with the star quality of William Weld of Massachusetts; and now General Powell - they have all been encouraged to run, pondered the matter and then issued a polite "No thanks".
The formal explanation is invariably "family reasons", and in General Powell's case that was demonstrably true on Wednesday. He may have looked tired, a touch dejected, as he began his announcement. Alma Powell, who had opposed a presidential run from the outset and who stood beside her husband on the podium, was positively beaming.
But disruption of family life is not the half of it. In 1789, George Washington, the first American soldier-turned-President, won office by acclamation. The last of them, Dwight Eisenhower, could spend what passed for the primary season of 1952 outside the country, and confine his campaigning to a statement from the Nato command in Europe that he would take the Republican nomination if offered. No such luxury awaited the possible Eisenhower of 1996.
If General Powell had decided to seek the US presidency, he would have been subjected to an electoral ordeal unparalleled in the democracies on this planet for duration, cost, expenditure of energy, and sheer nastiness. Even in the abnormally brief 1992 cycle, curtailed by the apparent invincibility of George Bush, the campaign lasted 18 months.
This time, a really zealous contender like Senator Phil Gramm of Texas has been running almost from the moment of Mr Clinton's inauguration on 20 January 1993. The travelling is murderous, the speech-making inane and the lack of privacy an endless humiliation. The quest for the presidency requires not a decent plan to balance the budget, but, in General Powell's words, a "passion and commitment" that he could not feel. In Bill Clinton's case, passion and commitment meant a skin thick enough to undergo a primetime national television appearance in January 1992, immediately after the football Superbowl, hand-in-hand with his wife, to explain away alleged marital infidelities.
Even before he had entered the race, warning shots were crossing the general's bows. Stories were afoot about his wife's mild depressive condition. Equally absurd, and certainly more wounding, were the attacks of conservative Republican activists, one of whom last week dismissed General Powell's 35 years in the military, his two tours in Vietnam, his role in the Gulf War, as something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, the work of a man who had "become ruler of the Queen's navy by polishing the handles on the big brass front door". And all that before he was a candidate.
And at every turn there is fundraising. The cost of a decent primary campaign runs at $20m - and most, if not all, of that must be raised beforehand. With his exceptionally high name-recognition, General Powell might have got away with less, but for lesser mortals the task is daunting. As Dan Quayle noted when he took himself out of consideration last February (mainly because of an unexpected inability to raise money), between then and the New Hampshire primary a year later he would have had to beg, borrow or otherwise wheedle $50,000 a day. "Do you have to be out of your mind to seek the presidency?" General Powell was asked on Wednesday. No, was the answer, out of obligatory deference to those subjecting themselves to the ordeal. But it helps.
The system, of course, has its defenders. The presidency, it may reasonably be insisted, is not a straightforward entry-level job. The brutality of a campaign is political Darwinism, ensuring the survival of the fittest, discarding the weak, the half-hearted and the inept. But surely, counter others, the methods of democracy should be more complex than natural selection, run according to the laws of market capitalism.
The sadness and the tangible sense of letdown after General Powell's departure epitomise doubts about the entire electoral process. More and more, a vicious, self-defeating mechanism seems to be at work. The most appealing candidates tend to come from the centre. But the driving forces are on the ideological extremes, embodied by the activists who tend to predominate among primary voters. Hence the false choices that have so contributed to a national disgust at politics that drove one in five American voters in 1992 to support a flaky, self-promoting businessman named Ross Perot.
Take Colin Powell. True, he symbolised his country's yearning for racial healing. But in other ways, too, he embodied a "sensible centre" that believes, as he does, that abortion, while regrettable, should not be outlawed, and that common sense dictates a measure of gun control. Instead, the electorate is deafened by debate over false choices: between total gun control and the freedom to have a howitzer in the back garden; between pro-choice and pro-life lobbies on abortion, both bent on turning common ground into scorched earth. Reform welfare and Medicare, yes. Roll back government, yes - but not in a way that leaves the weakest members of society without a safety net. Such was General Powell's philosophy. Most Americans agree.
Then there is the media, nowhere more fickle than here. With few exceptions, General Powell has been treated with little less than idolatry by the press and television, as half a dozen national magazine covers this year alone attest. But friends can turn into foes: ask Bill Clinton, first the darling of the chattering classes, only to be ambushed over Gennifer Flowers and alleged draft-dodging.
Clinton took every shot and won the supreme prize. But the damage to his reputation infects his presidency to this day. Why, Colin Powell and his family finally asked (and answered, sometime on Monday evening), should I take the same risk?Reuse content