WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - "It's August." That was how one State Department official dismissed reports that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has decided to resign at the end of President Bush's first term.
Ah, yes, August is the cruelest month for Washington reporters and pundits. It tends to offer precious little serious news to talk about.
Small wonder, then, that a maximum buzz welled up over The Washington Post's apparent scoop Monday. According to the Post, Powell deputy Richard L. Armitage had told National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that they did not intend to serve during a second Bush term.
Before sundown, Mr. Powell dismissed the report as "gossip." Mr. Armitage flatly denied that the reported conversation with Condi Rice ever took place.
But neither would reveal whether they really do plan to resign. It is a tribute to the diplomatic skills of Powell and Company that they can deny a report without confirming or denying its substance.
It also leaves everyone guessing about Mr. Powell's future, which tends to help him. It reminds the White House and others of how much the administration has relied on Mr. Powell's moderate voice and popularity with critical middle-of-the-road voters.
His pragmatism has swum upstream against the opposition of hawks like Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Mr. Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.
The Powell doctrine, adapted from that of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, under whom Mr. Powell served in the Reagan years, calls for the maximum use of force, and only after a clear exit strategy has been determined.
The new Rumsfeld doctrine calls for a lighter, speedier force that quickly seizes ground and, judging by what's happened in Iraq, worries later about what to do with that new ground after it is seized.
It is part of President Bush's management style to set up a dynamic tension between opposing views among his advisers, then decide for himself, often with the aid of political adviser Karl Rove, which voice to follow. Mr. Powell's repeated losses in this dynamic might help explain why, by my count, this is the third August in a row in which Washington is awash in rumors about Mr. Powell's possible resignation.
Two years ago, a Time magazine cover story headlined "Where have you gone, Colin Powell?" referred to him as the "odd man out" against the administration's hawks.
By chilling coincidence, the cover date on that magazine was Sept. 10, 2001. After the next day's terrorist attacks, Mr. Powell the diplomat was thrust back in the center of the action.
But the hawks gained the upper hand, we now know. Within days of Sept. 11, Mr. Wolfowitz was suggesting to Mr. Bush that America respond to Osama bin Laden by invading Iraq, despite the absence of a clear link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
Now Mr. Powell once again finds himself fending off resignation rumors, leading many to wonder whether the leaks are seeping out of his office or someplace quite close to it. The Strategic Resignation Rumor is an art form in Washington, after all, with ample precedents.
Of course, it only works to your advantage if most people don't want you to leave. With that in mind, it's also possible that Mr. Powell's rivals are putting the rumors out, since quite a few of them would be happy to see him go.
Typically, liberals have fooled themselves into thinking of Mr. Powell as a liberal, while conservatives have fooled themselves into thinking that the administration can get along just fine without his pragmatic enthusiasm for "overwhelming force" and enlisting allies to share the weight of the world's problems.
Both sides are wrong. Mr. Powell was too conservative in his national security policies for the Clinton administration and he's apparently too much of a hand-wringer for the hawks in his own party. That puts him in the wobbly yet pragmatic middle ground, where most Americans tend to be most comfortable.
But for those who want America to bite off no more of the world's problems than it can adequately chew, the thought of a Powell-less Bush presidency should not bring comfort - especially with hawkish names such as Mr. Wolfowitz or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich being bandied about as possible replacements.
So regardless of who's putting out the resignation rumors, it probably improves Mr. Powell's stature in the public mind. It's human nature. People often don't show their appreciation for you until they realize that your replacement could be a lot worse.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.