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Powell could be one to help unite nation

The respected former general could help Bush mend fences with many groups.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


WASHINGTON -- The life story of retired Army Gen. Colin Powell reads like a blueprint of the American Dream: Son of Jamaican immigrants, product of the South Bronx, Vietnam veteran, first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bestselling author, America's No. 1 volunteer.

Powell, 63, also has served as a national security counselor to three presidents. Universally hailed as one of America's most admired people, the man seems too good to be true.

Which is why you could hardly blame a politician, in this case Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, for wanting to identify with the general and bring him on board. The governor's people have made no secret that Bush has all but promised the job of secretary of state to Powell, if Bush wins the White House.

On Thursday, the Bush campaign orchestrated a photo opportunity with Powell, Bush, and Bush running mate Dick Cheney at the Bush ranch in Texas. The trio talked transition, national security and foreign affairs.

It wasn't the words, though, that mattered, but the image, as the campaign sought to make the governor look presidential, even as the legal battle for the White House raged in Washington and in Florida.

But perhaps more important, the image of Bush and Powell standing side-by-side and in casual clothing was aimed at easing concerns about Bush's ability to unite the country should he prevail over Democratic rival Vice President Al Gore.

With his stellar credentials, the Bush camp is hoping Powell can help boost the governor's popularity.

He's an asset to Bush on several fronts.

Powell, for example, could begin to help the governor mend fences. A veteran of Capitol Hill, he is known to have good relations with both Republicans and Democrats.

A voice of minority rights, including affirmative action, he also could help smooth relations with disgruntled black Democrats, a mainstay of Gore supporters. In Florida, some African-Americans have complained that they were turned away from the polls on Election Day. Bush received only 8 percent of the black vote nationwide, and trailed among women and Hispanics.

According to the campaign, Bush is hoping to use his Cabinet appointments to reverse the perception, fueled in part by the general himself, that the Republican Party isn't as welcoming to women and minorities. In working to put together a diverse Cabinet, Bush reportedly is being guided by the political realities of the election: the tightness of the race, the need to unite a divided country, his promise to put a compassionate face on the Republican Party.

But not everyone sees Powell as a man who can bridge the divide between the party and the black community.

U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, for one, said while he admires the general's accomplishments, and no doubt his appointment would provide a level of pride in the black community, Powell has not been a champion of black rights in, say, the tradition of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall or the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

He characterized Powell as "an outstanding individual who transcends race."

"You won't hear ministers at church say, "Oh look how much progress we've made because Colin Powell is secretary of state,' " said Hastings, who went to college with Powell's wife, Alma.

"He would be better off if he dipped down into a housing project and picked somebody who has worked with black people and appoint them to HUD," the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

He added, "Colin Powell is going to make Colin Powell happy. He's going to make W happy. But he ain't going to make Anna Mae happy."

Despite the campaign's giddiness with Powell, who catapulted to prominence during the Persian Gulf War, his previous statements about returning to the political arena suggest he was pressed into service. In an interview in November 1997, Powell said he lacked "the passion" for political life."

Yet, here he is.

Tony Cordesman, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Powell provides immediate "credibility" to Bush, who was criticized during the campaign for his lack of experience in foreign affairs.

"When people overseas in the Third World see a black secretary of state, it is a very powerful image about America's ability to understand something other than white, mainstream Western culture," Cordesman said.

Furthermore, he said, especially for minorities in the United States, Powell's participation in a Bush White House "indicates that this administration is not going to be Republican right and white."

Powell served as President Ronald Reagan's national security adviser and chairman of the Joint Chiefs under the governor's father, President George Bush.

Were Bush to win the presidency and name Powell secretary of state, he would be fanning a trend of recent years in which military people have played an increasing role in the shaping of foreign policy.

At a time when Congress has slashed the State Department and civilian foreign aid budgets, the military's regional commanders around the world have enjoyed a budgetary boom. They routinely meet with world leaders and set policy, oftentimes without Washington's blessing.

Supporters of Powell said he could provide a powerful voice in the funding wars with the Pentagon and the National Security Council. He, too, would be in a better position to guide the modernization and the changing philosophy of a leaner and more mobile military in the post-Cold War.

What Powell brings to the table is an ability to execute foreign policy, instead of merely conceptualizing it, said Cordesman, noting that that had been the problem with the Clinton administration. "I think that he is a uniquely qualified man," he said. "He is someone who understands."

But the selection of Powell, whose popularity enables him to command up to $90,000 in speaking fees, isn't without dissent.

Already last week, cracks were beginning to appear. Conservative Republicans were starting to wonder when Bush would start floating the names of fellow conservatives.

Some have complained about Powell for his support of abortion rights and affirmative action. At the Republican convention in Philadelphia, Powell was blunt in his criticism of the party.

He chastised party members who "miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action" but barely utter "a whimper when it's affirmative action for lobbyists."

Critics also have lashed out at Powell for his hesitation to commit American troops in the world's hot spots. He was resoundly criticized, for example, for ending the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein still in power. Conservatives also see him as being soft on China in its intimidation of Taiwan and failing to promote democracy in the Balkans.

The truth is Powell is no hawk.

He reportedly kept a quote from the Athenian historian Thucydides under the glass covering of his desk at the Pentagon that exposed his thinking: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."

Tom Donnelly of the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank in Washington, suggested that Powell has failed to adjust his thinking to post-Cold War realities.

Specifically, he said Powell should remember that the United States is the world's lone superpower and, thus, should exert its influence in the name of democracy.

"This is a historical moment," Donnelly said. "I'm not sure that this is the moment where traditional realpolitick foreign policy is what's called for.

"He's not a wuss, but he doesn't appear to want to run much of a risk in order to expand the domain of liberty."

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