Gen. Colin Powell, a career military bureaucrat unaccustomed to navigating the turbulent waters of interracial politics, had trouble coming to grips with Louis Farrakhan's Million Man March.

Powell's Republican political advisers were appalled when his office announced that, in response to Farrakhan's invitation, the general did approve of the march but could not be there because of a previous engagement. The advisers let it be known that Powell would fix that when he was interviewed by "CBS Morning News" just as the march began.

Not quite. He did call Farrakhan's racist, antisemitic remarks "a disgrace," comparing the Nation of Islam leader with rogue cop Mark Fuhrman. But Powell went on to say of the 400,000 marchers, "They're coming here for the purpose of uplifting African Americans as part of the American community."

Thus did the currently most popular American of any color join President Clinton and much of the political establishment in adding credibility to Farrakhan's thrust for national black leadership. Farrakhan has pulled off a remarkable tour de force in winning such widespread approval of his "message."

But what exactly is that message? Farrakhan's ostensible call for "atonement and reconciliation" was overshadowed by the overriding anti-white racism of his 2 1/2-hour keynote harangue. It is an open question how many African American men came to the Mall to atone and how many came instead to vent their hostility against life in America.

The march's success is all the more remarkable considering Farrakhan's baroque views of the world. While trying to be on his very best behavior leading up to his big event, Farrakhan simply couldn't resist reiterating his jumbling of history and sociology in an Oct. 4 interview with Reuters TV that was released last weekend. He repeated his rages about Jewish slaveholders in the past and Jewish "bloodsuckers" in the black community more recently.

He refrained from repeating antisemitic remarks on the Mall but showed again that he is a man whose head overflows with preposterous notions. Farrakhan's speech began with an unintelligible discourse on numerology, claiming occult and racist significance in the height of the monuments on the Mall. His call for black men to heal themselves was surrounded by racist mumbo-jumbo.

If Farrakhan's dominance were not reason enough for white and black leaders to disconnect from the march, his new lieutenant and organizer -- the Rev. Benjamin Chavis -- should have been. Chavis, charged with sexual harassment and financial mismanagement as executive director of the NAACP, nearly brought down that venerable organization. Farrakhan's march became an escape route from oblivion for Chavis.

Chavis's theme never has been atonement, much less self-responsibility. He lists "reparations" from white people for past sins as a major goal of the march, a refutation of the claim that Farrakhan does not hold his hand out. The Rev. Jesse Jackson displayed the same duality in his speech on the Mall. While pleading with black fathers to take an interest in their children's schooling, he delivered an absurd assault on Wall Street and corporate America for investing in prisons.

Mass marches on Washington over the past 30 years have had definable targets: most notably an end to legal segregation and U.S. withdrawal from the Vietnam War. But nobody made clear to the hundreds of thousands of black men Monday what they were really after.

To the political world, it was obvious enough: the elevation of Minister Farrakhan and the redemption of the Rev. Chavis. That is why Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, still an icon for the civil rights movement a generation after he sustained vocal and physical abuse from white racists, courageously said no to the march.

Bill Clinton had to play a more difficult game: how to resolve the nightmare conflict of his most loyal voters (African Americans) led by a mortal foe of his most generous contributors (Jewish Americans). After a week of consultation with aides, the president broke his silence Monday by reaching essentially the same conclusion as Powell: love the message, deplore the messenger.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, unencumbered by Clinton's constituency problems, had no trouble denouncing Farrakhan without the president's caveats. That, too, confirmed the great victory of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, claiming inspiration from God and now parlaying his jumble of incoherent fantasies into the paramount role among the nation's blacks.

(C) 1995, Creators Syndicate Inc.