Powell receives quiet guidance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Part of Colin Powell's apparent appeal and freshness in national politics is that he has not been packaged by a platoon of media consultants and has not visibly tailored his "message" for advisers with ambitions of their own.

But he is not working alone.

Kenneth M. Duberstein is hardly a household name in America. But he has the attention of General Powell, guides him through intramural Republican politics and has helped him play the press like a 50-piece U.S. Army brass band.

Indeed, he has been at the center of every important battle waged by the Republican Party in Washington during the past 15 years.

As a congressional lobbyist in the Reagan White House, Mr. Duberstein helped engineer the legislative victories of Ronald Reagan's first term. As the last chief of staff in the Reagan White House, it fell to Mr. Duberstein to use the White House to help George Bush.

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich wanted to highlight the Republican Congress' first 100 days in a speech to the nation, he called Mr. Duberstein, who furnished the speaker with a speech writer, a sound man -- and suggestions on what to say in the speech.

Today, he is aligned with General Powell, who isn't saying whether he will run or even whether he considers himself a Republican.

In an hourlong conversation in his office recently, Mr. Duberstein said that he doesn't know what the retired general's plans are and that he expects to find out along with the rest of the country in November.

Refuses to be quoted by name

In the meantime, Mr. Duberstein keeps his hand in, serving as a liaison between the general and the Republicans who run Capitol Hill, cultivating uncommitted GOP activists and stoking the yearnings for a Powell candidacy among reporters. Mr. Duberstein is so discreet with the press that he refuses to be quoted by name -- even for articles about himself.

There is no better way for a consultant to remain invisible and no better way for General Powell to remain in the limelight -- alone.

"He's kind of the ultimate insider," says Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary in the Reagan and Bush administrations. "He's helped Colin Powell to navigate the Washington waters, how to deal with the press -- and he has been particularly valuable in helping Colin position himself to use his book contract to support his presidential ambitions."

One of Mr. Duberstein's goals, close friends say, is to not burn bridges within the Republican Party in case General Powell does not run.

Another is to encourage the general -- if he decides to run -- that he can do so as a moderate Republican instead of an independent, a path complicated by the general's views that place him to the left of most Republicans.

If General Powell's politically moderate views have to be sold to a party dominated by conservatives, Mr. Duberstein may be the person with the most appropriate experience. His career took him from the soul of the liberal wing of the Republican Party all the way to the heart of the conservative wing -- Mr. Reagan's Oval Office.

In the 1960s, Mr. Duberstein worked for New York Sen. Jacob Javits. It was the era when Javits and fellow New Yorker Nelson A. Rockefeller became the symbols of liberal, establishment Republicanism despised by a new breed of conservative Republican from the West. These were men such as Arizona's Barry Goldwater, Nevada's Paul Laxalt and, of course, California's Ronald Reagan.

"Duberstein would have grounds for a lawsuit if you described him as a conservative," says conservative fund-raiser Richard Viguerie. "And so would we. He's not one of us.

"We've always seen Duberstein as being part of the Rockefeller wing of the party -- and we still do."

Edwin W. Meese III, former counselor to the president in the Reagan White House and later attorney general, laughs off Mr. Viguerie's comment with a kind of country-boy shrug.

'Served the president well'

"Coming from California, I didn't know who was a 'Rockefeller' Republican and who wasn't," he said. "All I know is that Ken served the president well -- and that's good enough for me."

In mid-1988, Mr. Duberstein ascended to the top staff job in the White House, but the Reagan era was nearing its end. To first lady Nancy Reagan, the most important remaining task was making sure her husband was credited for great events, especially for playing a role in ending the Cold War.

Mr. Duberstein planned presidential addresses to underscore that theme and helped coin a phrase that Mr. Reagan delivered in his farewell address: "We meant to change a nation and instead we changed a world."

On behalf of the Bush administration, Mr. Duberstein was part of the team that produced the memorable phrase "high-tech lynching" for Clarence Thomas, when he was battling the Senate for confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Despite his role in that crusade, conservatives have remained suspicious of Mr. Duberstein. Many nodded knowingly last week when General Powell revealed that he is sympathetic to gun control, abortion rights and affirmative action. But those who know both men say that Mr. Duberstein does not tell the general what to think.

"Duberstein's value to Colin Powell is that he tells him how to navigate Washington's waters, how to deal with the press," says Mr. Fitzwater said. "But if Colin Powell tells Kenny what he wants to do, Kenny doesn't try to change his mind -- or tell him what he should think. He tells him how to accomplish it."

Not a celebrity

Mr. Duberstein is not a Washington celebrity, and there is no evidence that he wants to be. He is a former Eagle Scout, and perhaps it shows. He is a genuine family man. He offers visitors to his office not booze but a soda in a paper cup and a pretzel.

"These are the last handmade pretzels sold in America," he says proudly.

So he is not James Carville, the colorful, self-styled "Ragin' Cajun" who became a media star after advising President Clinton in 1992. But Mr. Duberstein's counsel is still highly valued, in part because of his loyalty.

Last year, when former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney visited Washington to explore a presidential bid, he summoned Mr. Duberstein and several other top Republican strategists to brainstorm. Mr. Duberstein was helpful but noncommittal -- and everyone present, including Mr. Cheney, knew the reason.

"We went to lunch afterward," recalled another member of the group, "and he told me: 'I love Dick Cheney, and I'm for Dick Cheney -- as long as Colin Powell doesn't run.'

"He was always for Colin."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°