For his first speech since retiring as the nation's top military commander less than a month ago, Colin L. Powell came to Baltimore last night wrapped in a cocoon of security, and the media were barred from covering his address.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was featured speaker at the Jewish National Fund's 21st annual Blue and White Gala at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. What he said regarding America's position in the Middle East and on Israel particularly was heard only by the approximately 900 people at the gala.
Hyatt security guards ejected reporters and television crews from the ballroom before the speech, then would not allow a Sun reporter to open a ballroom door to hear it.
"Just following orders," said a hotel guard, Jack Cook.
Through closed doors of the ballroom where he spoke, General Powell was heard saying, "The last six years of my military career were the most exciting," a period when he served under three presidents -- Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton.
General Powell, who officially retired from the military Sept. 30 after 35 years service in the Army, including orchestrating the Persian Gulf War, said he saw "more changes" in those six years than during his previous 29 years in the service.
F. William Smullen, Mr. Powell's chief aide, said that the media were barred by the leadership of the Jewish National Fund, which, according to a source on the organization's board, paid the general $60,000.
Diane Scar, executive director of the fund-raising organization, said earlier that General Powell's speech was primarily to address security and peace issues in the Middle East and concerns about Israel.
David H. Nevins, president of the Jewish National Fund, said that the decision to bar the media was made because of "contractual obligations." He would not elaborate.
In a media advisory distributed by the fund last week, Mr. Nevins said that only cameras would be barred from the large ballroom where General Powell gave his address.
Despite the fact that the general's popularity continues to grow, and many in the crowd last night said they favored Mr. Powell as a presidential candidate in three years, the organization refused to even let the media interview the general.
For many, according to recent polls, General Powell represents the embodiment of hard-won success, his biography an American dream. Others, however, wonder if and how General Powell could withstand intense public scrutiny during a presidential race and tiptoe through the minefields of issues like abortion, civil rights, taxes and health care.
On his trip to Baltimore, the general arrived at a back entrance to the hotel and was spirited by elevator to a private room on an upper floor.
He started the evening with a $500 private champagne reception.
His visit had all the trappings of celebrity. Guests stood in a long reception line to pose for photographs with the smiling general.
The guest list included Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., and Maryland Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein.
Mr. Goldstein said of his prospects, "He's only been retired less than a month, but obviously people are looking at him real hard. But it's three years before the next federal election, and he has yet to select a party."
Mr. Smullen said that the general "doesn't have a sense of involvement yet, but he entertains a sincere desire to serve the nation."