Powell to the People
A CONVERSATION WITH THE GENERAL
COLIN POWELL peers from the windows of his office at the city of Alexandria seven stories below. The day is getting on, and this business of selling books while not quite running for president appears to be tiring. Why bother with the whole thing? What special skills would he bring to the Oval Office, anyway? At first he ticks off job-interview answers: pretty good leader, experience in the process of compromise, somebody who knows how to set goals. Then he pauses. He's looking at Alexandria's downtown housing projects, visible in the near distance through a mist of late-summer humidity. ''I want to bring the sense of hope and faith that fueled my life into the life of every young kid,'' he says. ''I can take you five blocks from here and show you kids that don't have that anymore in their lives.'' Make no mistake about it - Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the enigma of American politics, is preparing himself for something big. He's got a vision of what's wrong with American society and what he might do to fix it. He's espousing a set of moderate political positions that have only made his poll numbers go up. And remember, he is a retired four-star general. He's in the habit of bossing people around. Maybe he will run for president. (He now admits the ''pilot light'' of a campaign is lit.) Maybe he won't. But in the days since the publication of his memoirs and his media reemergence, he has sounded more and more like a man who intends to be a force of some sort in American public life for years to come. ''What I've seen out on the speaking circuit ... is increasing shortage of patience with politics,'' he says. ''The bickering seems to be much too partisan and is not solving problems.'' ''The people are looking for competence, and people who solve problems,'' he adds. It's a statement that's blandly normal. But to GOP presidential hopefuls Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm, and maybe even to President Clinton, these are words that may sound as ominous as the beat of war drums, far in the distance. If nothing else, Powell's sudden transformation from recluse to media hyperstar has been a brilliant stroke of marketing. His memoir ''My American Journey'' is already into its second printing and may turn out to be Random House's top nonfiction seller ever. He already threatens to surpass the publishing success of his old comrade in arms, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Sales are such that the retired Joint Chiefs chairman has had to learn the secret to prolonged book signing: move the whole wrist and hand, not just the fingers. The book tells the story of a youth of West Indian heritage who grew up in Banana Kelly, a section of the Bronx that today would seem unusually integrated. The young Powell counted whites and Hispanics among his best friends and learned Yiddish phrases to better communicate with the customers of Sickser's, a toy store where he had a summer job. His father, a shipping department foreman, taught him hard work and responsibility. St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, and later ROTC at the City College of New York, provided the rituals, symbols, and sense of belonging and purpose that he craved. ROTC led to a second lieutenant's commission, and Powell never looked back. He was early tagged a ''fast-burner'' (military for ''guy on the move''). He survived a Viet Cong shell that hit the tree he was standing under, during his first tour in Vietnam, and a helicopter crash, in his second. As a staff officer in Korea he survived ''combat football,'' an innovation that involved two balls, dozens of players on a side, and no rules; and his own farewell party, which degenerated into a brawl. Tours in the Pentagon introduced him to two future GOP Defense secretaries who became mentors - Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci. Though he insists he was always fighting to return to field commands, Powell was dragged into increasingly important Washington jobs. His crisp efficiency finally landed him the White House national security adviser's office, where strange things sometimes occurred. There was the time, for instance, that a fellow staffer, a colonel named Oliver North, requested permission to pack a pistol while at work. (Powell writes: '''Why does he need a gun around the National Security Council?' I wanted to know. 'People are out to get him,' my assistant said.'') The rest is well-known US history. Powell became the national security adviser himself, then Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman for two terms. Along the way both Presidents Bush and Clinton sounded him out for top civilian policy jobs. ''My American Journey'' does, however, deal only briefly with Powell's minor involvement in such controversial issues as the Iran-contra affair. ''One of my critics actually wrote that because I was a White House fellow at the time of the second Nixon administration, I bear some responsibility for the Watergate coverup,'' he says. The book also makes clear that Colin Powell is far from the prototypical Washington outsider that angry US voters often say they want. He's probably spent more time on the White House grounds than Bill Clinton has, due to his multiple National Security Council tours. Powell has helped run foreign-policy decision meetings for three presidents. ''The criticism of me as an insider does not yet seem to represent a 'third rail' to me, or significant problem,'' he says. The retired general's recent two weeks of mass interviews have also revealed him as a man who is ''politically homeless,'' in the words of one commentator. He's too liberal, by far, for the Republican right wing. Yet he supports budget cuts that are anathema to mainstream Democrats - and anyway, he's talked about the ''intellectual death'' of the Democratic Party as a whole. His positions don't easily place him in the political spectrum. He supports abortion rights - alienating him instantly from Republican conservatives. He praises affirmative-action goals but decries quotas. He supports balanced- budget efforts as well as gun control, says Social Security might be in for cuts, and is in favor of a ''quiet moment'' in public schools. Of all current political issues the one that seems to engage him most is welfare reform. He agrees that welfare programs haven't served their intended purpose, and need to be trimmed. But he says he's concerned that nobody knows how welfare changes will affect children. And he says that ''family caps'' and other attempts to change welfare incentives so that poor women will have fewer children may well be futile. Powell says that ''I don't think that a young woman with a squalling child on her hip is anxious to have another squalling child just for the $80'' in additional welfare payments it will bring. Continuing to glance out his window at the deepening afternoon, Powell begins talking about the collapse of responsibility he sees in families everywhere. ''The breakdown in family is a breakdown in the sense of what's right and wrong. It's a breakdown of personal accountability,'' he says. Many things in the lives of poor young mothers, from their surroundings to the afternoon talks shows on TV, promotes counterproductive behavior. ''If I could fix their home lives, fix structure in their lives, that would be worth far more than whether they get $80 a year or less.'' In his book, Powell concludes by saying that ''we have to start thinking of America as family. We have to stop screeching at each other ... and instead start caring for, sacrificing for, and sharing with each other.'' It's a solution that to many hard-bitten Washington politicians sounds both vague and obvious, merely a starting point for addressing the nation's ills. Powell admits as much, saying he has no ''magic wand'' that can remedy American social problems. But he insists that his analogy of Americans as family is the proper place to start. Many poor, he says, look around and see the poverty in which they live, poor local schools, and an apparently uncaring political infrastructure. ''They are starting to lose belief that the rest of their fellow Americans consider them as worthy citizens,'' he says. ''Just by saying so, and acting upon that belief, it helps to restore a sense of faith,'' adds Powell. Spoken like a general who feels responsible for the troops under his care. Admittedly, the US Army is a somewhat paternalistic system, with higher officers worrying not just about their troops' performance, but the quality of their lives. Powell's statements about welfare are reminiscent of an anecdote in his book, when he faces down an angry soldier swinging a pool cue just by talking, man-to-man. ''What problem soldiers needed, like the kid with the pool cue ... was someone to care about them,'' he writes. Dare we say the words 'third party'? Coyly, General Powell has written that he believes the time may be ripe for an alternative, centrist force in American politics. He demurs when asked whether he would run for president as an independent - and he says that if he does run at all, he will run to win. He doesn't have to be a presidential candidate to help organize and represent a third party, though. He could raise money, serve as titular head, and have it all - a voice in public life and the lucrative life he's now leading as an author and in-demand motivational speaker. Then again, maybe Powell doesn't want any of this at all. Maybe he's just selling his book and planning for life as a Volvo restorer. That is his hobby - taking old junker Scandinavian cars and rebuilding them, alone, in his garage. Over the years he has fixed up some 30 Volvos, he figures. Lynn Cheney, wife of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, once wanted to buy one. ''That never got consummated,'' says Powell. ''Dick and I allowed as how it would be better if the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of Defense did not have a car-selling relationship dealing with a used, ancient car.'' 'People are looking for competence, and people who solve problems.' Jamaican Roots 'My black ancestors may have been dragged to Jamaica in chains, but ... Mom and Pop chose to emigrate to this country for the same reason that Italians, Irish, and Hungarians did, to seek better lives for themselves and their children. That is a far different emotional and psychological beginning than that of American blacks, whose ancestors were brought here in chains.' Education 'Schools like my sister's Buffalo State Teachers College and CCNY have served as the Harvards and Princetons of the poor. And they served us well. I am, consequently, a champion of public secondary and higher education.' Punctuality 'I react to waiting for people who show up late about as patiently as I do to a taxi meter clicking in stalled traffic.' Affirmative Action 'I benefited from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Army, but I was not shown preference... When equal performance does not result in equal advancement, then something is wrong with the system, and our leaders have an obligation to fix it.' Welfare 'I don't think that a young woman with a squalling child on her hip is anxious to have another squalling child just for the $80' in extra welfare payments. Political Philosophy 'I was born a New Deal, Depression-era Kid.... Government helped my parents by providing cheap public subway systems so that they could get to work, and public schools for their children, and protection under the law to make sure their labor was not ex-ploited.... I am a fiscal conservative with a social conscience.'