WASHINGTON -- With the thunder of cannon and the roar of jets, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell rode into retirement yesterday -- but not into obscurity or poverty.
The most popular and powerful American military man in a generation will remain before the public eye with the writing of his memoirs (at $6 million), frequent lectures (at $60,000 a pop) and a nationwide guessing game about his future political plans.
General Powell's retirement ceremony at Fort Myer, Va., was attended by President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former President George Bush, Barbara Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle and rank upon rank of dignitaries and diplomats, senior military officers and covetous politicians.
General Powell's already beribboned breast was loaded with a half-dozen more medals, including a special citation from Queen Elizabeth II, who named the general an honorary knight commander in the military division of the Most Honorable Order
of the Bath.
Under sunny skies on a chill early autumn afternoon, Mr. Clinton extolled the 56-year-old general as "strong and wise, forthright and honest," the perfect model of the perfect soldier.
"You are truly a hard act to follow," Mr. Clinton said. "Your reward is a grateful nation and a bright future."
General Powell delivered an emotional and deliberately apolitical paean of thanks to American men and women in uniform, to the civilian leaders who entrusted great responsibility in him and to his immediate and extended family, especially his wife of 31 years, Alma.
With four silver stars glittering on each shoulder and his second Presidential Medal of Freedom draped about his neck, General Powell said, "The Army has officially advised me that, for record purposes, I have served 35 years, three months, 21 days, and as we say in the infantry, a wake-up [the morning of one's final day]. I loved every single day of it. And it's hard to leave. . . .
"I have never wanted to be anything but a soldier, and my dream has been fulfilled for almost four decades," said General Powell, who ended his career as far more than a simple soldier.
General Powell exited yesterday after rising from childhood as the son of Jamaican immigrants in the tough South Bronx section of New York City to wield the most governmental power of any black person in the nation's history.
The veteran of two tours in Vietnam emerged from the pack of young officers in 1972, when Caspar W. Weinberger shepherded him through assignments from the Energy Department to the White House.