Washington. -- All presidential candidates today must feel like the person in the nursery rhyme who says:
Yesterday upon the stair
I saw a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish that man would go away.
Colin Powell is the man who isn't there.
Except he is. He is out and about giving talks that are well-received. His book will be published this autumn. Everything he does fuels speculation about whether he will seek the presidency. He is coy when he says, "I've checked the Constitution very carefully, and you do not have to belong to a political party." Coy, and a bit of a flirt.
Concerning his political ambitions, if any, and his party sympathies, if any, the two most frequently asked questions are: If he runs, will he be an African American Eisenhower? Or an African American Perot?
The correct answers may be: Being an Eisenhower is not as easy as Eisenhower made it seem, and would be a lot more difficult today than it was then. And being a Perot would be pointless because it would obliterate the central rationale for a Powell candidacy, which is the admirable character
he is assumed to have.
Other than Washington and, perhaps, Jefferson and Grant, Eisenhower was the first person to become president after becoming a figure of world historic importance. He had already dealt, during the war and after, with some of the century's largest figures and problems.
General Powell conducted from Washington a short war against a nation with a gross domestic product smaller than that of Kentucky. His military career was, of course, much richer than that, and was distinguished all the way. But Eisenhower was a potent political force because of what he had done; General Powell is, or probably could be, because of what he is. Were he not an African American there would be no talk of treating the presidency, for the first time since 1952, as an entry-level political job.
It speaks well of him, and the country, that there is so much support for making him president not because of what he wants to do but because of what he represents. No one, perhaps including him, has the foggiest idea what he would do as president. He would be a manly presence and an affirmation of America as an essentially just meritocracy. Such a presence would be useful, but a presence is not a presidency.
Eisenhower, too, was the embodiment of reassuring values, including decency and bravery. It was said that his grin was a philosophic statement. The slogan, remember, was "I like Ike" -- him, not his convictions. However, he had strong convictions, particularly about what he considered dangerous isolationism in the Robert Taft wing of the Republican Party. There is no comparable clarity about whatever it is that might impel General Powell into the political arena. And there's the rub. Two rubs, in fact.
First, much more than the early 1950s, this is an ideological moment in America. This is healthy because it involves Americans in reviewing old themes, arguments, documents and principles. Second, politics without clear convictions becomes either mere brokering of interests or a cult of personality -- a likely cause, or consequence, of a presidential candidacy independent of the two major parties.
Such a cult is apt to give rise to, if it does not arise from, intellectual and moral vanity. That is the Perot phenomenon -- "Ross for boss" because everything is, as he likes to say, "just that simple." But if solutions are simple, then presumably the only reason we have problems is that everyone other than the boss-in-waiting is either dumb or bad, or both.
General Powell is too mature, ironic and wise to think like that. But an independent candidacy by him would implicitly assert that he feels too good and grand to risk contamination with the parties. Yes, of course, the Constitution, which was written before there were parties, is silent about parties. But a presidency conducted independently of both parties would necessarily become an exercise of watery Caesarism -- trust the leader because, well, because he is the leader.
An independent candidacy would announce the candidate's opinion that neither the choices within the parties nor between the parties are significant. That act of intellectual and moral bravado would, in General Powell's case, seem colored by race. Absent a rounded ideological presentation of a full political agenda, his candidacy would suggest that America's principal problem is racial, which is not true (what is called the race crisis is a class problem arising from dysfunctional families and destructive behaviors). And it would suggest that he has -- or he is -- the solution to it, which is, to say no more, unlikely.
So is a Powell candidacy.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.