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From This Gridiron Seat, Powell Still Looks Like A Future President

Dear General Powell:

It just so happened that I was seated at the Gridiron show this year so that I could watch you being lampooned on the stage and then, easily, turn my head and see your face and how you were reacting. There you were, at the head table, laughing uproariously, as a Gridironer impersonating you was doing a bump and grind while belting out: "In the lecture circuit I'm No. 1/I'm damn glad I didn't run/I'm making big bucks, big bucks, big bucks, big bucks."

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It was the hit act of the night, with Houston Chronicle bureau chief Cragg Hines doing his stuff. It was a memorable moment. Gridiron historians will be reminding our group about this show stopper for years to come.

But, you know, General, I thought as I watched your face that you were laughing a little too hard. There had to be a message in that song that would disturb you: That you were passing up public service in order to make the big bucks. Oh, I know, you said afterward that "It was hysterical, my favorite moment." But that, in my opinion, was Powell the Good Sport, not Powell the Responsible Citizen, the man who comes through so clearly in your biography.

So it seemed to me - and to several media people I talked to after the show - that this rowdy song might be memorable in a truly significant way: That it might cause you to change your mind and nudge you toward taking the second spot on the ticket with Bob Dole.

Yes, I think you might join up with Dole - even if you aren't ready to admit that this is a possibility. My seatmate during the Gridiron evening, Robert Strauss, is, as you know, "Mr. Democrat" and has been so regarded for years. So he isn't exactly rooting for you to strengthen the Republican cause this fall.

"Powell really is a Democrat," he said, a bit ruefully. But he agreed that there was a good chance that you might yet become the GOP vice-presidential candidate despite your remonstrations to the contrary.

Strauss sees the tension-filled moment at the Republican national convention this August when Bob Dole comes knocking at your door with this insistent plea: I can't win without you. Under those circumstances - Strauss surmises - you simply wouldn't be able to turn the offer down. That's what I think, too, General.

And, you know, as I wrote in a previous memo to you more than a year ago, I think that politically this would be a "no-lose" move for you. The Dole-Powell ticket wins and, four years later, you get to run for president because Dole decides he's too old. Or if Dole hangs in and you get two terms as Veep, you're young enough to get your opportunity at the end of eight years. Or if the Dole-Powell team loses this fall, you can bank on getting to run for No. 1 four years from now. Whatever the scenario turns out to be, you'll be ready. You will have served your party. Your party will be ready to accept you as a presidential candidate - which it wasn't this year.

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But let's get back to that song and its message. You were laughing but I think you were hurting more than a little inside. You know that your whole life in the military is one that speaks of willingness to subordinate your private well-being to service to country.

Oh, sure, you were also serving your own ambition and rising spectacularly to the highest ranks. But your biography tells us of a man who feels deeply about the responsibility to play a useful public role. In pursuing this path you took on high-risk military assignments. Your medals tell of your valor. They signify the gratitude of your fellow countrymen.

And now your country calls upon you once again. Sure, there are high risks in running for president or being a president. But you have shown yourself to be courageous. And the political battlefield is tame compared with that of Vietnam.

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