WASHINGTON -- As Colin L. Powell travels the country, testing the political waters as he sells books by the truckload, a crucial question hovers over Operation Publicity Storm:
Does the gulf war hero have the makings of a president?
Many who have worked closely with the retired general as he leap-frogged up military and political ranks admire him greatly, describing him as charismatic and inspiring, smart and steady, a presence that fills a room.
Mostly, they say, he is as impressive and astute a political player as they have seen.
But that description cuts both ways. And as Mr. Powell, 58, is seen more and more as a serious presidential prospect, some colleagues and military experts are expressing reservations about his style of leadership, especially in the context of leading the nation.
They say he is more politician than visionary and too cautious to take even reasonable risks.
"He keeps everything smoothed down," says one former sub-Cabinet-level official who worked closely with Mr. Powell for several years. "But that's not a leader. That's an exceptionally good staff person. That's someone you want to be your chief of staff."
At the same time, this critic says, "You can't help but like the guy."
Indeed, the Harlem-born four-star general with the big, wheezy laugh is affable, relaxed, at once self-deprecating and supremely self-possessed. Most appealing of all, he is kind of normal.
This is a man who, at Nelson Mandela's inauguration last year, took off his jacket and tie to sing old doo-wops -- "In the Still of the Night," for starters -- with a group of teen-agers he met on a street corner.
He works on old Volvos. He curses and sprinkles his conversation with the Yiddish he learned as a child growing up in the South Bronx of the 1940s and '50s.
A sense of belonging
His success story, detailed in his new book, "My American Journey," is patriotic and inspiring.
Born to hard-working Jamaican immigrants, young, directionless Colin Powell, a below-average student, finds the sense of belonging he craves in an ROTC program at the City College of New York.
His Army career includes two tours in Vietnam. And though he returns to soldiering from time to time after that, he spends most of the next two decades in political Washington, earning powerful postings in the Reagan and Bush administrations. In 1989, he's tapped as the nation's youngest, and first African-American, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Washington seemed to fit Gen. Colin Powell as smoothly as his crisp, star-studded uniform. He came to be known as a solid manager, a facilitator, a man who, in his own words, "tended to get what I set out to get."
When Richard Armitage, now one of Mr. Powell's closest friends, came to the Pentagon in 1981 as an assistant defense secretary, recalls, "I looked around, kind of nosed around new people, said 'Who's got the key around here? Who can say what's going on?' And they'd say, 'There's a brand new brigadier down there by the name of Powell. Check it out. He knows a lot.'
"I needed someone who could give me the Reader's Digest version of who did what to whom and who made the trains run.
"And there he was."
While regard for his competency and accomplishments is almost universal, even among critics, some see in his career more of a talent for detail and bureaucratic finesse than broad and bold creative thought.
'Very much a man of process'
"He's very much a man of process," says Eliot A. Cohen, a military specialist at the School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.
He notes that Mr. Powell's criticism of Bill Clinton's national security meetings -- "like graduate-student bull sessions," Mr. Powell writes in his new book -- did not pertain to the president's goals, but rather his management style.
Mr. Powell, in an interview in his Alexandria, Va., office doesn't quarrel with that assessment.
"I'm good at process," he says. "I have worked in bureaucracy for many, many years and for many of the assignments I had, my job involved solving problems, not just screaming at problems. That's what leadership is all about -- solving problems.
"I am not an ideologue. If you're looking for an ideologue, that's not me.
"Do I have a vision? Yeah. I have shown vision in the course of my military career."
As examples, he cites his work in the Bush administration,
coming up with a new strategy for the armed forces after the Cold War, and finding ways to cut the armed forces by 25 percent to 30 percent.
During the Bush administration, Mr. Powell was a driving force of the "base force" strategy, a plan to pare the military to the minimum force capable of meeting its responsibilities.
The plan took a bite out of the military, but it is described by analysts as an incremental change, not a radical restructuring.
Need to articulate a vision
Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration who served with Mr. Powell, thinks the general may be a solid leader for the nation because he acts like a leader. But Mr. Korb suggests that, even in foreign policy, his vision lacks sweep or a historical framework.
"If you look at Colin, he's a very good troop leader and military bureaucrat," says Mr. Korb, now an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "But in terms of a sense of history, or America's role in the world, [he's set forth] nothing other than we should be strong and we should be involved."
Mr. Korb, like nearly everyone interviewed for this article, stressed Mr. Powell's mastery of the political dimensions of his -- job.
Detractors believe that political adroitness helps camouflage an aversion to risk-taking or exposing himself to possible failure, a caution that has given rise to a "reluctant warrior" label.
Mr. Powell has strongly opposed U.S. intervention in Bosnia, for instance. And after Kuwait invaded Iraq in August 1990, he favored relying on economic sanctions rather than committing U.S. troops, as President George Bush ultimately chose to do.
Ironically, it was his decisive declaration about crushing the Iraqi army that gave Mr. Powell celebrity status: "First, we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it," he announced.
But he didn't kill it. In fact, the question that still plagues Mr. Powell is whether his sense of caution caused him to counsel the president to end the war too soon, leaving Saddam Hussein and some of his Republican Guard still intact and a menace today.
One retired flag officer who worked closely with Mr. Powell during the gulf war -- and believes he did recommend ending the war prematurely -- says the general got "cold feet" worrying that scenes of U.S. troops fighting the retreating Iraqis on the "highway of death" would look like a U.S.-led slaughter.
Mr. Powell makes no apologies for not recommending that the war continue another day or two.
"The war was a success," he has said. "It has some lingering problems that are annoying but not strategically important."
Mr. Armitage defends his friend's caution in the use of force. "As a parent, if someone is reluctant to commit my son or daughter to possible death without having a clear objective and a clear goal -- if that's called a reluctant warrior, that's the guy I want heading the troops."
Mr. Powell's decisions during the gulf war reflect what has come to be known as the "Powell Doctrine." The doctrine, bred from the wrenching lessons of Vietnam, asserts that the armed forces should act only with decisive force, with clear goals and the support of the public, and only when success is all but assured.
Although the Powell Doctrine still holds sway at the Pentagon, it has been questioned because of its all-or-nothing approach and its difficult-to-meet requirements.
"It's extremely restrictive," says Mr. Cohen. "Most people are coming around to view it as too restrictive."
Another episode that raises eyebrows among Powell skeptics is his involvement, however tangential, in the Iran-contra affair. Working for Defense Secretary Casper W. Weinberger in 1986, Mr. Powell arranged for a shipment of TOW missiles to be transferred from the Army stocks to the CIA. Eventually, the missiles ended up in Iran.
Mr. Powell was among those deposed by congressional investigators and Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh. While Mr. Weinberger was indicted by Mr. Walsh -- later to be pardoned by President Bush before going to trial -- Mr. Powell emerged largely unscathed.
In his final report, however, Mr. Walsh wrote that Mr. Powell's testimony -- specifically, that he did not know if Mr. Weinberger kept a diary -- was "at least misleading."
Mr. Korb, who also was deposed by Mr. Walsh on the subject, says it was "somewhat surprising" that Mr. Powell didn't know about Mr. Weinberger's habit of keeping extensive notes, and that Mr. Powell told investigators 114 times he couldn't recall events. "This man has a photographic memory," says Mr. Korb.
The My Lai massacre
Going back even further, a chapter in Mr. Powell's Vietnam experience is offered by critics as an example of his reluctance to make waves or take bold action.
Months after the March 1968 My Lai massacre, in which roughly 350 Vietnamese civilians were killed by U.S. soldiers, then-Major Powell, deputy operations officer of the Americal Division, was asked to look into allegations of such atrocities made in a letter written by an Americal soldier.
Major Powell's report to his superiors said the allegations were unfounded. He never interviewed the author of the letter.
"In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent," Major Powell wrote.
Mr. Powell says today that the letter from the soldier -- whose charges proved correct -- was not specific enough to warrant investigation and that he had heard nothing of My Lai at the time.
The general rose through the ranks of the Army just as it was making an effort to place more African-Americans in positions of authority.
Clifford Alexander, who became the first black secretary of the Army in 1977, tripled the number of black generals.
Colin Powell was one of those advanced, but most colleagues say he has earned every promotion through sheer talent. His friend, defense specialist Harlan Ullman, says the conventional wisdom was, "If Powell were green, he would have made it to the top."
The racial factor
Mr. Powell, who favors affirmative action but not quotas, says his race probably has helped in his career more than it has hurt.
The racism he encountered outside the military was not a problem inside. Nor has it been something he's felt inside Washington.
But Mr. Powell notes that Presidents Reagan and Bush and Secretary Weinberger, all mentors of a sort to him, were not sensitive enough to racism or aware of the needs of the African-American community.
Asked if he tried to help enlighten them, he says:
"I will always have to wonder whether I could have done more about that. But in the jobs I had I don't think I had the opportunity, and I'm really not sure, at that time, that I knew fully what was going on in the community as well."
Jesse Jackson has criticized Mr. Powell for marching to the beat of "right-wing white people" such as President Reagan, rather than on a picket line. But other black leaders tend to see the general as a potential racial healer.
"People see him as a bridge," says Democratic Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland. "He can talk to black and white communities, conservatives and liberals, and not be pre-judged. People don't look at him as someone with a bagful of motives."
At the Pentagon, of all places, there has been some recent questioning of his motives as Mr. Powell has traveled the country since his 1993 retirement, earning up to $60,000 apiece for his speeches.
Mr. Powell makes no apologies for the handsome fees he collects for "providing a service people find valuable." And he believes the road he is traveling today, testing the political waters through the promotion of his book, is an honorable, if also profitable, one.
Now that he is no longer serving his country in uniform, he says, "there is enormous interest in what I might do with my life. And I care deeply about the country. And I have something left to give to my country. I have energy, I have health, and I have a love for the country.
"I'm just trying to find out how best to do that."