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THE POWELL ANNOUNCEMENT : Moment in the National Spotlight Gives Alma Powell a Chance to Shine : Politics: Retired general's wife displays candor and 'strength of character' during news conference. Some see her as perfect political spouse.

November 09, 1995|FAYE FIORE and MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — When she finally faced the media horde Wednesday, Alma Powell was refreshingly forthright, frustratingly succinct. Whether by accident or design, Colin L. Powell's wife left 'em begging for more.

"What came across was her strength of character. She wasn't just poised and articulate, she was strong," said Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "As a team, they tantalized America. By refusing to run, they proved their normality. My guess is even more Americans would like him to run now than 10 minutes before he made the announcement."

Standing by her husband's side in the hotel conference room where he put a merciful end to the nation's No. 1 political mystery, it was clear this 57-year-old Army wife had played a pivotal role in the former general's tortured decision against seeking the White House.

"It was one we reached together as a team, as we have for 33 years, and I am very supportive," she said, stepping confidently to the microphone from her position one step to his left.

In the days leading up to his long-awaited announcement, the Washington gossip chain buzzed with word of her dread that he might be assassinated--"It just takes one nut," was the way she put it. On Wednesday, she acknowledged--then promptly discounted--those fears when asked about the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: "It was a deep tragedy, one that has great effect on the world at large . . . but it did not play a part in the decision."

Still, some found it hard to believe that the decision of Powell's life, made on the Monday night that Rabin was laid to rest, was not somehow colored by the ghost of yet another fallen leader.

"I can see where the pressures on Mrs. Powell and on him must have been intense--to be sitting there making a decision with Leah Rabin on the television set," said Mary Finch Hoyt, former press secretary to Rosalynn Carter, Jane Muskie and Eleanor McGovern.

Even so, there were other factors that may have helped convince Alma Powell that the comfortable house with a swimming pool in McLean, Va., was a safer, saner bet than the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the news conference, Colin Powell was asked whether he had, at least in part, been deterred from running by news reports that his wife has suffered from depression for more than 10 years and is on medication for the condition.

His reply was candid, matter-of-fact: "It is not a family secret. [Depression] is very easily controlled with proper medication, just as my blood pressure is sometimes under control with proper medication. And you obviously don't want your whole family life out in the press, but when the story broke, we confirmed it immediately, and I hope that people who read that story who think they might be suffering from depression make a beeline to the doctor. . . . "

Nevertheless, others said such disclosures represented a "shot across the bow" fired by an unrelenting press corps. "Let's face it, he's been a major public figure for years and 90% of the public probably did not know who Alma Powell was," said Washington political consultant Norman J. Ornstein. "This story had to raise the notion that running for President is different from running a war, being national security adviser or a best-selling author. It's one of the most unfortunate elements of what has become of public life: You have to run with the expectation that there is nothing that is private."

Oddly, the factors that led the Powells to decide against a presidential bid are the very qualities that make them so appealing to many in an American public sick of ambitious politicians who will say anything to win, the pundits say.

"The things that led her not to say: 'Oh boy! I could be First Lady' are what make her so attractive," Ornstein said. "She is not consumed by ambition. She is not a Stepford wife."

The daughter of a high school principal in Birmingham, Ala., Alma Powell led a privileged childhood. She married a soldier and bought into an itinerant military life, shuttling from one Spartan military base to the next, raising two daughters and a son while her husband went off to serve.

He did two tours in Vietnam. Much of her life was spent fearing for his. They had their first Christmas apart, with Alma in Birmingham, pregnant with their first child and her husband on his way to Vietnam. "I went to the airport myself since I am not comfortable with public displays of emotion," Powell wrote in his 643-page autobiography, "My American Journey." "I had learned something about Alma in those final weeks. Here was a young woman, soon to become a mother, whose husband was leaving for a long time for a far-off, dangerous place. She accepted our separation with stoic calm. . . . I knew she was going to make the perfect life partner for this soldier."

By virtually all accounts, Alma Powell also would have been the perfect political spouse, comfortable with her social position in any circle, bright and well-spoken.

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