The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans saw Colin Powell as their presidential savior in 1996. He couldn’t see himself that way.

Gen. Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, in November 1995 at the Ramada Hotel news conference where he announced that he would not seek the presidency. (Dudley M. Brooks/The Washington Post)
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This story originally ran on Nov. 9, 1995, under the headline “Between ‘no’ and ‘yes’ lay an unbridgeable chasm.”

On the afternoon of June 3, 1994, William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education, author and conservative guru, visited retired Gen. Colin L. Powell at the general’s new home in McLean.

It was still more than two years away, but the 1996 presidential race was on Bennett’s mind. “The country will be looking for a man of a certain character,” he told Powell. “We’re always playing out some version of George Washington, the indispensable man.”

“And you’re him, you know. If there’s a modern Washington, you’re him. You stand up at the Republican convention and say, ‘I’m running for president because I want to save the American people.’ That means you just bring everybody together. Standing ovation.”

But despite the ensuing polls and cheerleading, the entreaties and the promises of support, Powell decided that this was not the 1780s, or even the 1950s, when another general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, stepped in to save America. In the end, Powell could not see himself as that “indispensable man.”

He arrived at that conclusion through the same step-by-step questioning and obsessive attention to detail that have characterized his decision-making throughout his life. Define the nation’s problems. Look for solutions. Decide if he was uniquely qualified to provide them.

Powell never came up with fully satisfactory answers to any of those questions, he said recently to associates.

If there was a clear major foreign policy question or domestic crisis that he thought he had a solution for, Powell told one friend, he would feel an obligation to run. Those Republicans and others who urged him to run argued that he would be a healer for the nation. But he was not able to define fully what needed healing, and felt he was miles away from having a clear remedy, particularly to the narrow legislative questions of the day.

Even as he methodically deliberated, one associate said, Powell had always remained deeply hesitant. From the start, this associate believed, “It was always a ‘No.’ He was tempted and he weighed it but I believe he never got into what I would call the ‘yes category.’”

Powell was offended that many Republicans reduced their arguments to, “We’ll lose without you.” He felt he was not being invited to the GOP for any purpose other than to dig the party out of the hole it had dug for itself. “People were popping up out of nowhere,” said another close associate, “and they were representing themselves only and their interests. Very few people were addressing his [Powell’s] interests.”

Powell’s interest in political office was always focused on broad themes of community, tolerance and personal responsibility rather than on the hard policy questions. “Specific discussions of things like Medicare never grabbed him,” said one of his best friends. In August, just a month before Powell’s book, “My American Journey,” was released, he told friends that he had read the galleys of neoconservative author Ben Wattenberg’s book, “Values Matter Most,” and was quite taken with the theme.

Reporters at Powell’s news conference yesterday questioned whether his decision was influenced by the danger associated with a presidential campaign, the threat of personal attack in political life made only too real again last weekend with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. Powell’s wife, Alma, acknowledged the concern, but both denied it was a deciding factor. Still, it was no secret that Alma Powell and many of his closest friends were opposed to his candidacy throughout the deliberations.

Powell never got a handle on the political fundamentals of a presidential campaign. Last April, when he heard a reporter suggest on television that Powell lacked four things — the passion to run, a clear political persona, a game plan and a political party — he called the reporter at home that night to agree. More than six months later — even though he now has a party, the Republicans — he felt he had made only modest progress on the other three.

Eventually, he came to realize that he could not find the internal drive, the fire in the belly for the race, and that its absence provided an answer in itself. “You know it when you see it,” one friend told him bluntly, “and I don’t see it.”

And, as Powell examined the nuts-and-bolts questions of a possible campaign, he knew it was anything but simple. His just-completed book had gone through numerous rewrites and cutting. But he realized there would be no second draft of a presidential campaign. He would have to get it right beginning with the first step, a task that he concluded would be nearly impossible given his inexperience in electoral politics.

During 35 years in the military, Powell was a master of careful planning and caution.

During his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he had developed the “Powell Doctrine,” holding that there should be no commitment of U.S. military power without a clearly defined mission, wide public understanding and support and a willingness to use overwhelming force to virtually guarantee success.

Applying those principles to a possible presidential campaign, he told associates, he could not make the commitment.

Friends said that the final two weeks of debate and decision-making that led up to yesterday's announcement seemed to have taken their toll on him. He seemed weary, and to have lost weight.

But he may find comfort in the 13 “Colin Powell’s Rules” listed at the back of “My American Journey.” Rule No. 1: “It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

As Bennett felt after his 1994 meeting with Powell, “He’s a guy distinctly unmoved, unperturbed by the fact that millions of people are saying, ‘Run Colin, run.’ He’s a guy in supreme possession of his soul.”