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Will U.S. Like Powell Like It Liked Ike? : Presidency: The retiring chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is popular and viewed as not carrying political baggage.

September 12, 1993|MIKE FEINSILBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — The general had charm and command presence. No one knew if he was a Republican or a Democrat, but the Democrats were in office, so it was logical for him to run as a Republican. But would he run? Was he interested?

That was Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1951. And that's Colin Powell in 1993.

Like Ike, Powell has the makings of a formidable presidential candidacy, if he's interested.

The Republicans have plenty of potential candidates but they're all politicians--senators, governors, former Cabinet members for the most part--in an anti-politician era. They carry accumulated baggage and bear the scars of old enmities. None yet stands out from the crowd.

Powell stands out. If he has a public enemy, no one knows about it.

And he's a clean slate, as Eisenhower was. No one knew how Ike stood on the issues, so no one could disagree with him on them.

A few months after Harry S. Truman inherited the presidency in 1945, he told Eisenhower that he would gladly bequeath the job to him. "General, there is nothing you may want that I won't try to help you get," Truman said. "That definitely and specifically includes the presidency in 1948."

Eisenhower declined, but in 1952 he allowed himself to become the candidate of the Republican Party. The GOP, out of office for 20 years, hungered for victory and lacked anyone with Eisenhower's charisma.

Colin Powell, of course, may be a Democrat, out of sync with Republican thinking. And, of course, he is not a hero of the stature of the five-star liberator of Europe in World War II.

But he is widely admired. If Clinton looks strong as 1996 approaches, the Republicans could find Powell irresistible.

Born in Harlem, the son of a seamstress and a shipping clerk, both immigrants from Jamaica; educated in public schools and at the City College of New York; a non-West Pointer who got his start as an ROTC cadet; the winner of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star during two tours in Vietnam, America's top military man at the time Saddam Hussein was humiliated and Kuwait liberated: It's a dream political biography.

He demonstrated administrative skills--and a mastery of Washington's ways--as adviser to Ronald Reagan and George Bush and as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush and Bill Clinton, who once considered asking him to serve as his secretary of state.

"Powell is a nonpartisan figure who can appeal across party lines," said historian Gary Reichard of Florida Atlantic University.

"He is a better politician than Ike ever was," said John Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester. "Powell understands politics, has a good feel for it. He understands the political atmosphere, what kinds of things are possible. He resonates moderation, compassion and toughness."

As a Republican candidate, Powell would draw strong support from blacks, who constitute an essential, and the most loyal, component of the Democratic constituency.

"I can't imagine any other black person in American life who would garner more white support," said Alonzo Hamby, an Ohio University historian.

But pitfalls exist. Sometimes military leaders look diminished when they trade in their uniform.

Powell is retiring at the end of September. As a civilian, he will be less able to avoid expressing opinions, and opinions are divisive.

Tim Blessing, director of the presidential performance study at Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., said Powell's best bet, if he has political ambition, is "to virtually disappear," to go abroad on a humanitarian task, or take a college presidency, and stay off television.

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