COLIN L. POWELL may have decided not to run for president, but this is no way diminishes the profound impact his non-candidacy has had on an America whose racial divide has lately been revealed in all its intensity. For him (and the country), the "important thing" was that the nation had arrived at a point where the possibility exists that an African American can be elected president.
This will happen sometime, he predicted. The 58-year-old general noted that in his lifetime he had moved from not being served in restaurants to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a prospective run for the nation's highest office. A black leader in the Oval Office? "It will happen sometime," he said.
In announcing he had joined the Republican Party and would seek to broaden its appeal, General Powell invoked the "spirit of Lincoln." This same spirit drew most African Americans into the GOP until the era of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In recent years, the party has moved so far to the right that it has become the bastion of Southern conservatism.
Mr. Powell vowed he would try to broaden the GOP to the point where it could embrace even his "somewhat heretical views" and thus offer black America a choice other than the Democratic Party. But in taking himself out of the race, he left a field in which practically all Republican candidates were having no part of his "heretical" stands for affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control and child welfare. Speculation on a Powell candidacy had split the conservative movement.
General Powell's withdrawal gives a big boost to frontrunner Bob Dole, who earlier yesterday secured the endorsement of Gov. Steve Merrill of New Hampshire. No postwar Republican has made it to the White House without a victory in that state's ice-breaker primary.
Nonetheless, the role of House Speaker Newt Gingrich remains a question mark. Yesterday, he said a Powell candidacy would have closed the field to him. Now he will decide whether to run after the 1995 legislative agenda is completed. Mr. Gingrich is considered the one figure in the Republican ranks who could storm the GOP national convention unless Senator Dole locks it up.
These are matters for the political hot stove league. What will matter in American history is that a black American with broad white support, a figure who came out of the military rather than the civil rights movement, could have made a serious and potentially successful bid for the presidency -- one in which his race was seen as a positive factor in bridging the black-white divide. Even if he is out of the political wars for now, General Powell can still contribute mightily to this process.