SAN DIEGO -- Gen. Colin L. Powell delivered an enthusiastic endorsement of Bob Dole, and a stern call for compassion and inclusion, in an eagerly awaited address to the Republican Party last night.
The speech by Powell, who once described himself as a Rockefeller Republican -- a liberal in terms of today's GOP -- was the highlight of the opening day of the 1996 Republican National Convention. It also was a counterpoint to the deeply conservative cast of the GOP delegates here.
Scattered boos from the convention floor greeted Powell's restatement of his belief in abortion rights and his strong support for affirmative action -- quite possibly the only time those words will be heard from the podium in San Diego this week.
But that was followed by a loud cheer from the crowd of 20,000 when he shouted, "We are a big enough party -- and big enough people -- to disagree on individual issues and still work together for our common goal: restoring the American Dream."
Last night, women, minorities, AIDS sufferers and children were among the featured speakers, in person and in videos made by GOP film crews and shown on giant television screens in the San Diego convention center. By contrast, the makeup of the convention is largely white, male and staunchly conservative, delegate surveys showed.
Four years ago, polarizing figures such as Patrick J. Buchanan and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson spoke to the convention from the podium. Barred from a similar role this time, they were merely faces on the convention floor last night.
Telegenic Govs. George W. Bush of Texas and Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey were installed as temporary convention chairs, replacing controversial House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a target of Democratic political attacks who has faded far into the background here.
Good feelings triggered by Dole's selection of popular conservative Jack Kemp as his running mate continued to spread. Unsuccessful GOP presidential candidate Buchanan delivered a long-delayed, if somewhat perfunctory, endorsement of Dole's candidacy.
Buchanan, the runner-up in the 1996 Republican primaries, issued a one-page written statement calling Dole's election "the one -- the only -- realistic chance we have to implement the agenda for which we campaigned for 18 months."
Dole responded that Buchanan's endorsement was "another indication our party is united."
Last night, speaker after speaker took turns embracing Dole's candidacy and whacking at President Clinton.
"Today, what we have in the White House is neither a Ford, nor a Lincoln," said former President Gerald Ford, 82. "What we have is a convertible Dodge."
Ford, who chose Dole as his running mate 20 years ago, said the Kansan is "even more qualified today."
With polls showing Dole trailing Clinton by ten points or more in the polls, Ford reminded the delegates that in 1976, the Dole-Ford ticket gained 30 points in the polls before narrowly losing in November. "The only poll that counts is still three months away," he said.
Former President George Bush, who was unseated by Clinton in 1992, referred obliquely to the political difficulties of the Clinton White House.
If elected, Dole would have a White House staff that "will be beyond even the appearance of impropriety, and in the process he will increase respect for the United States of America all across the world," said Bush.
And in the closest reference of the night to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bush drew a loud reaction from the crowd when he noted that his wife, Barbara, "unquestionably upheld the honor of the White House. She did it with class and style and caring and love."
Bush was followed by a video honoring Ronald Reagan, now suffering from Alzheimer's disease and unable to attend in person. He was represented by his wife, Nancy, who was greeted with a standing ovation, the longest of the night.
"Just four years ago, Ronnie stood before you and spoke for what he said might be his last speech at a Republican convention," she said in a voice choked with emotion. "Sadly his words were too prophetic."
Delegates wept in the hushed convention hall as she spoke of her husband's "very long goodbye." After quoting from his 1992 convention speech, she concluded by saying, "from both of us, God bless America."
She was followed immediately by Powell, who also was greeted warmly.
Making his first speech as a political partisan, the 59-year-old former general avoided a direct attack on Clinton.
However, in endorsing Dole, Powell did say: "In an era of too much salesmanship and too much smooth talking, Bob Dole is a plain-spoken man."
Most of Powell's speech was a call for compassion and inclusion on the part of his party, which he joined only last year.
"I come before you this evening as a retired soldier, a fellow citizen who has lived the American Dream to the fullest," he said, recalling his upbringing by Jamaican immigrant parents.
"We might be black and treated as second-class citizens, but stick with it. Because in America, justice will eventually triumph," he said to applause from the virtually all-white crowd.
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who once criticized the influence of religious and social conservatives on the GOP, implored Republicans to "never step back from compassion."
"We have to make sure that reduced government spending does not single out the poor and the middle class. Corporate welfare, and welfare for the wealthy, must be first in line for elimination," he said, to only scattered applause. "It is the entitlement state that must be reformed, and not just the welfare state. And we must do it in a way that does not paint all of government as the enemy."
And in an echo of one of his famous lines from the Persian Gulf war, Powell said that the party of Lincoln should lead a crusade "to cut off and kill discrimination" and offer educational and job opportunity "to those who are still denied access because of their race, ethnic background or gender."
Powell, whose consideration of a presidential run last year tantalized the country and overshadowed the other candidates, has been a reluctant warrior in this year's campaign. He spurned Dole's very open pursuit of him as a potential running mate and has said he would be too busy to do much campaigning for the Republican ticket this fall.
In effect, his address served as the convention's keynote speech, even though that title has been bestowed upon tonight's remarks by Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, another GOP moderate.
His remarks were a sharp counterpoint to the hard-line conservative platform that was approved, without dissent, earlier the day.
Buchanan boasted that the platform bears his stamp and said it was "a vindication of our decision not to quit the race." Phyllis Schlafly, the longtime anti-abortion activist who is a Buchanan delegate, proudly called it "the most conservative platform of our time."
Dole is distancing himself from the platform, saying over the weekend that he had not actually read it and did not feel bound by its provisions.
Pub Date: 8/13/96