For the first time ever, a black American is being sized up by the nation as a potential president. That Colin Powell has brought this about is, alone, reason for the nation saying "thank you" to him.
He has helped us grow up. He has done so by the simple device of succeeding brilliantly in the American institution that has done the most to provide equal opportunities to all. He was never a "black soldier" and he is not likely to be a "black candidate" if he runs. That is not to say he would ignore that matter or expect others to. As he put it in a recent interview, "I don't ever want to forget my color and I don't want anyone ever to forget my color when they're looking at me. I want them to see an American. I also want them to see a black American who's proud of being an American who happens to be black."
Even if he is not a candidate for the presidency, his demonstrating cross-racial appeal has already been a boon to this country. If he becomes a candidate, and helps make race as irrelevant in politics as it is in the U.S. Army, that would be an even greater boon. His critics say his "candidacy" is just a lot of media hype. Hardly. Polls may appear in the media, but they measure general public opinion. A new Los Angeles Times poll shows his appeal among Republicans increased because of his recent pro-gun control, pro-affirmative action statements. A poll for Newsweek shows a Powell candidacy taking Republican primary votes away from Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander. So his appeal is not just to moderates.
But Republican moderates -- the invisible men and women of the 1980s and 1990s -- are the natural base of a Powell candidacy. Were General Powell to run, as Speaker Newt Gingrich put it, he would "energize the moderate wing of the Republican Party," win or lose. That would be good for the party, even thoughtful conservatives will admit, as a counter-balance to the party's very energetic right wing.
Just by causing Speaker Gingrich to think out loud about Republican moderates' influence, General Powell has helped the GOP. There has been some talk that the right wing would walk out on the party if it nominated a moderate like General Powell. That's hype. Speaker Gingrich says he could vote for Colin Powell if he were nominated, and his conservative credentials are hardly in doubt.