Profile: Colin Powell America's soldier-politician

Profile: Colin Powell America's soldier-politicianFirst things first. Colin Powell is never going to be the first black President of the United States. That awesome, but always slightly unlikely, possibility vanished on a November evening in 1995, as he and his wife, Alma, met his two closest political associates in his sprawling home across the river from Washington, in McLean, Virginia.

"It's over," Powell told them, confirming what the visitors already suspected, that he would not run against Bill Clinton 12 months later. "Not so," one of them replied, "it's just the start of the next chapter of your life." And so it has proved. Powell may have ducked the ultimate challenge. But six years on, his rank is barely less awesome, as America's first black Secretary of State. The only problem was, in the first few weeks of Bush the younger, it didn't appear so.

Powell seemed to be on the wrong end of every foreign-policy argument. Humiliated over North Korea and alone in his welcome for Europe's defence initiative, he was a dove among hawks on Iraq, and an internationalist among isolationists on Kosovo and the Balkans. Powell might have been the superstar but it was a troika of hardliners, they said, who had the untried President's ear - Dick Cheney, the most influential Vice-President in modern times; Donald Rumsfeld, a Defense Secretary suspicious of Europe and advocate of the overthrow of Saddam; and Paul Wolfowitz, Mr Rumsfeld's deputy and a Cheney protege.

"Of all the manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most," is the maxim of Thucydides which Powell kept by him in the Pentagon, and which he still loves to quote. But what price restraint when, from the disowning of the Kyoto climate pact to arms for Taiwan and the future of the ABM Treaty, Washington's credo seemed a simple "might is right"?

Conventional wisdom, however, was wrong. When Bush faced his first real foreign-policy crises, over the US spy plane in China, and the Middle East, Rumsfeld was nowhere to be seen. It was Powell who crafted the language that secured the crew's release - and who spoke the words that forced Ariel Sharon to pull his tanks out of Gaza last week.

In a way the travails of Powell, a Vietnam veteran, reflect the ancient truth that soldiers who have lived through wars tend to be less eager to fight them than their political masters. But Powell bridges the gap. He is that uniquely American creature, the political general, a breed starting with George Washington himself and continuing to Dwight Eisenhower, through the likes of George Marshall, a great soldier remembered for the post-war reconstruction.

Marshall is the Secretary of State whom Powell most closely resembles. Powell's career, had he never left the army, would have made him an authentic American hero - the son of poor Caribbean immigrants who made the American dream come true. But like Marshall, he possesses rich political gifts, including high intelligence and a finely tuned ear for public opinion.

Like clever politicians everywhere, he knows when to leak, and when to hold his tongue. He can coin soundbites with the best of them, and possesses a light, self-deprecating touch that the media adore. And in 1994 and 1995, the media repaid his blandishments, as he mulled over what would have been the most sensational presidential run in history.

With polls suggesting he would trounce Bill Clinton, the media presented the White House as Powell's manifest destiny. The man in question did nothing to dispel the notion, with a string of $60,000- a-time speaking engagements, and an inspirational biography called An American Journey, which turned bookshop signing sessions into impromptu political rallies.

Then, as now, press and public alike were seduced by his charm, modesty and obvious decency. Powell has a unique ability to tug white America's guilty conscience about race, yet simultaneously make it feel good about itself. If the Holy Grail of national healing existed, it surely lay with Powell - and the Million Man March in Washington in early autumn 1995, organised by Louis Farrakhan, only reinforced that sense.

With his anti-semitism, his adopted Muslim faith, his suspicions, resentments and summons to arms, Farrakhan symbolises the black man whom whites dread, the sort that has them looking over their shoulder and hurrying to the other side of the street. Powell is the opposite - the embodiment of the hope that America's racial demons can be banished.

Jamaica may have made the difference. "Blacks in the West Indies were slaves too, but slavery there was abolished earlier," Powell once pointed out. "In the Caribbean, they were more than an indentured people. But in the US, blacks were oppressed, totally oppressed." To this day, his attitude to a white-run society is meritocratic and relaxed: "I let other people, not me, worry about race."

At one point, his parents were British subjects. You can only wonder what might have happened had they chosen, as did so many Jamaicans, to emigrate to London. Field Marshal Colin Powell, Foreign Secretary Colin Powell? In the hierarchical British system, surely not.

Happily for this story, Luther Theophilus and Maud Ariel Powell decided on New York and the south Bronx. Their gifted child attended elementary and secondary school there, before entering the City College of New York where he took a degree in geology in 1958. Far more importantly, he joined - and soon became commander of - the CCNY reserve officer training corps. When he graduated, at just 21, the immigrant's son received a commission as a second lieutenant, to start a military career which would last 35 years.

It took Powell twice to Vietnam, first as a military adviser, then in 1968 as a battalion officer, earning him two wounds and a Purple Star; then to an MBA degree, followed by a prestigious White House fellowship, a stint in Korea and then a succession of high-level posts in and out of the military.

He served in the Energy and Defense Departments under the Democrat Jimmy Carter, before entering the Reagan Cabinet in 1987 as National Security Adviser, the first black man ever to hold the post. In 1989, George Bush named him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most powerful soldiering job on earth, where he was an architect of the Gulf War triumph over Saddam Hussein.

But all the while his politics were a mystery. To be sure, he had mainly prospered under Republicans, but his only documented affiliation was an "All the Way with LBJ" bumpersticker on his battered VW Beetle during the presidential campaign of 1964, when Powell had returned from his first spell in Vietnam to be appalled by the racial prejudice in the south. But when his four years at the Joint Chiefs ended in a deafening buzz of presidential speculation there was still no firm pointer. Clinton tried to tempt him into a Democratic administration, while others predicted that, like Ross Perot, he would run as an independent.

Undoubtedly, Powell was sorely tempted; and even now, in a part of him, ambition visibly lingers. After he withdrew, he chaired an organisation called America's Promise, dedicated not to the military but to the general advancement of young people. Having finally declared himself a Republican, he went to the 1996 San Diego convention and delivered a speech whose case for compassionate, open- spirited conservatism put the rest of the party to shame. When he became the first Cabinet choice announced by George W Bush, it was he who looked the President. Never will "Dubya" look smaller than when he stood that December day listening to America's latest soldier- politician set out his vision of the world.

But ultimately two factors prevailed. One was the unremitting opposition from his wife to a presidential bid. Alma, an elegant scion of the southern black establishment, had taken several social steps down to marry her soldier in 1962. She was also a mild depressive who, after decades of moves and upheavals as an army wife, yearned only to lead a settled family life in McLean. She feared for her husband's physical security. "It just takes one nut," she would say. When Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fanatic days before Powell made up his mind, the threat from armed homegrown American nuts could not have been more starkly illustrated.

But another, still deeper, reason was decisive. The general lacked the stomach for this battle. Not even a near-mythical reputation would have spared him the distortions and character assassinations of a presidential campaign - American politics at its most exhausting and brutal. In the end, a candidate has to reply in kind. Powell simply was not ready to pay the price. In his own words, "the burning desire" was missing.