WASHINGTON -- The Powell Doctrine asserts that, whenever the United States takes military action, it should do so with overwhelming force.

Although his weapons are now celebrities and presidents rather than tanks and missiles, retired Gen. Colin L. Powell is bringing the same guiding principle to bear as he sets his sights on the nation's volunteer spirit and commands an operation of colossal proportions.

From Sunday to Tuesday in Philadelphia, the former joint chiefs chairman will lead a conference to promote volunteer service in the private sector -- with elaborate staging and an all-star lineup to rival a political convention.

Along with the Clintons and the Gores, the Presidents' Summit for America's Future -- intended to focus on young people -- will be attended by former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, as well as Nancy Reagan filling in for her ailing husband; 30 governors; 90 mayors, including Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore; scores of corporate chief executives and stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Bennett and John Travolta.

The goal of the high-voltage gathering, organized largely by the White House and Powell's office, is to gain specific commitments from corporations and nonprofit organizations for resources to help youngsters -- everything from after-school programs for kids to paid leave for employees to act as tutors.

Critics see the summit as merely a glitzy public relations bonanza for politicians and corporate figures looking to polish their images.

Commitments made

But even if little is accomplished in Philadelphia, the power of the Powell persona has already resulted in commitments for contributions from 240 organizations.

Powell says his aim, as general chairman of the summit and a new organization that will follow up on the commitments made there, is to provide resources -- such as adult mentors, safe places to learn and health care essentials such as vaccines -- for 2 million youngsters by the year 2000.

"The reality of this great land, with all of its promise and with all of its wealth and treasures, is that there are too many young people who are losing some hope, starting to wonder if America has a future for them," Powell told reporters. "The answer we're going to give at the summit this weekend is, 'Yes. America's promise is that there is a future for you.' "

Summit planners are hoping that individuals as well as organizations will heed the call.

"What we're trying to do is make volunteering the thing to do, something to boast about," said Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who is leading the state's delegation.

What planners can already boast about is an event that is churning through the national media machine. Last week, two news magazines ran cover stories on volunteerism. Some Sunday morning talk shows will be broadcasting from Philadelphia. And reporters, who have been deluged with phone calls and faxes regarding the event, are swarming there in large numbers.

Why? In large measure, it's the Powell mystique. And he knows that perhaps more than anyone. While he insists he is no more enthusiastic about a presidential run now than he was in 1995, he has left the door open enough to keep the spotlight on him.

Political agenda denied

Although some have speculated that the summit is a Powell political springboard, he maintains "there is no other agenda associated with my participation" than his commitment to America's youth.

The 60-year-old Republican has been portraying himself as nonpolitical. "The role that I am playing is to stay out of the public political debate," he said. "Because once you do that, you spend all of your time taking a position on every little piece of legislation that comes along."

With a reprise of the Powell-mania of two years ago and the summit's show-biz veneer -- Winfrey is the host, for instance -- cynicism about the event is high.

This week, community advocate Jeremy Rifkin, a member of the summit's executive steering committee, sent a letter to Powell saying that he had grown "increasingly alarmed" about the tone of the event.

"I would not like to see the Presidents' Summit reduced to a self-congratulatory, feel-good event dominated by corporate public relations and political posturing among our nation's elected officials," he wrote.

Marian L. Heard, chief executive of the steering committee, defended the gathering, saying, "We believe this goes far beyond public relations. Every single commitment has measurable goals, can be quantified and is attached to a specific timetable."

For instance, LensCrafters has promised to provide 1 million needy people, especially children, with free vision care by the year 2003; Time Warner has pledged 1 million volunteer hours of literacy tutoring by 1998; Timberland is donating $1 million plus 5,000 pairs of boots to an AmeriCorps program, and is offering employees up to one week of paid leave to devote to community service.

'Pizzazz' deemed necessary

Townsend said "a little pizzazz" is necessary to get the public to focus on the issue of volunteerism. "Just the goodness itself is not effective," she said.

In fact, volunteerism is down slightly from where it was in the late 1980s. According to a poll released this week by Independent Sector, a coalition of philanthropic and volunteer organizations, 49 percent of those questioned said they volunteered in 1995, down from 54 percent in 1989.

Sara E. Melendez, president of Independent Sector, said the summit could be valuable in elevating the issue, since the primary reason most people volunteer and give to charities is that they are asked to do so.

The summit was the dream of former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney. In July 1995, three days before he died, he mapped it out for two colleagues, who pursued it: former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris L. Wofford, who heads Clinton's Corporation for National Service, and Bob Goodwin, head of the Points of Light Foundation, a Bush legacy.

After enlisting Clinton and Bush as co-chairmen, and such sponsors as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the two approached Powell last fall.

His involvement has transformed the event into a $2 million extravaganza, with thousands of participants and pledges that are still pouring in.

"When Colin Powell comes a- calling," said NYNEX President Don Reed, who made a $1 million dollar pledge to the summit this week, "yes, that does make the blood move a little faster."

The highlight of the three-day event is expected to be the gathering of the current and former presidents on the steps of Independence Hall Monday morning for the official "call to action."

But the real impact will not be felt until later, when participants head home and begin to make good on their promises. To follow up on the summit, Powell is forming and chairing a nonprofit group, America's Promise -- The Alliance for Youth, that will be run by Rick Little, head of the Baltimore-based International Youth Foundation.

Some states have made plans to hold their own community service summits. And some, such as Maryland, have scheduled follow-up meetings to try to develop volunteerism programs in their communities.

"That," said Powell, "will be the real proof of the value of the summit."

Pub Date: 4/25/97

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