WASHINGTON -- With the retirement this week of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, speculation will rise again about a future for him in national politics. He told the National Press Club yesterday only that he hopes "to do something that is in service to the nation in some capacity. Whether that's political or not remains to be seen. I have nothing inside me at the moment that says it has to be political." Hereabouts, that will be taken as a definite maybe.
Powell's great popularity and positive image after 35 years in the military, and in the highest reaches of Washington power circles, make him appear -- on paper, at least -- a potential political star, as either a presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 1996, especially on the Republican ticket. And although he has steadfastly declined to identify any party affiliation, it is easy for Republicans to convince themselves that a man who served in both the Reagan and Bush White Houses is, or has become, one of their own.
GOP political professionals, however, remain uncertain about Powell's political loyalty, as well as about his ability to perform effectively as a candidate. At the same time, they note that for someone who has long been in the public eye, he would come to politics with a clean slate, something few figures who reach national prominence ever enjoy. In other words, they say, his political fortune would be in his own hands.
In these speculations about a political future, it is notable that the fact he is an African-American is not mentioned by these political pros until it is specifically raised with them. And when that happens, most say his race would not be a bar to a successful candidacy, and especially so as a vice-presidential candidate. In fact, they say, it would be a distinct plus in the party's decision on a presidential running mate.
"I think Colin Powell is beyond race," says longtime Republican consultant Eddie Mahe. Another veteran GOP consultant, John Deardourff, suggests Powell "would be virtually colorblind" to voters because he is not defined by his positions on issues of narrow interest to blacks. He would be a great magnet for black votes, Deardourff suggests, while appealing as a military man to whites other than unreconstructed rednecks, especially in the South.
Comparisons with the last military man as president, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, are considered valid only to a point. Eisenhower like Powell today kept his party allegiance secret almost until he agreed to run and very little was known about his views on a range of critical public policy matters. But in 1952, Eisenhower didn't have to say much about anything in advance of his nomination. Only a handful of states held important primaries of the sort that today oblige candidates to debate the issues in depth. Party leaders had much more say in the nomination process by controlling state party conventions that chose the national convention delegates.
David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, while acknowledging Powell's appeal says he has demonstrated "nothing to lead me to believe he could handle" the rough-and-tumble of primary debate on important national issues on which he has had no background. Charles Black, a key adviser to President George Bush last year, agrees that this would be the acid test for Powell, but says he would have ample time to hone his skills on the stump before 1996.
For the same reason, former Ronald Reagan campaign manager John Sears says it would be wisest for Powell to run for a lesser office first, such as the U.S. Senate, and Deardourff suggests it might be best for him to wait until the year 2000, which he might have to do anyway if he is a Democrat, as Deardourff suspects.
In the meantime, Powell will be busy for the next year or so writing his memoirs -- for a reported $6 million. That alone should inoculate him for a while against Potomac Fever, the very contagious disease that has been known to afflict civilian and military man alike. And as a man who looks up to Gen. George C. Marshall, who went on to be secretary of state and architect of the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II, he may need no inoculation.