Colin Powell Has Left the Building
April 26, 2000
The Thrill... Weeks before what might have been, Burrell Haselrig Jr. stood waiting in front of the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble in New York City, underneath an increasingly blustery sky. Looking like family, with his snowy hair and mustache, a natty gray suit and perfect maroon tie, the 74-year-old Haselrig was peering up Fifth for the car of Lionel Hampton--celebrity Republican, ace vibraphonist, and honorary chair of the black-run Exploratory Committee to Draft Colin Powell. The line of blacks and whites, women and men already snaking its way around the corner toward Avenue of the Americas would triple within the next hour. A sign bobbed above the building crowd, which would eventually number more than 1200: "WE HAVE COME TOO FAR AND HAVE TOO FAR YET TO GO TO TAKE A DETOUR IN THE SWAMP OF HATE--Colin Powell." Nearby, an earnest young sister on her lunch break clutched the general's autobiography and a camera. Coiffed and tailored for the office, she looked like the kind of daughter my parents long ago resigned themselves to not having in me. When she was told she'd need press credentials to stand where she'd planted herself, she didn't move. Instead, she shared a sentiment that would be echoed many times throughout October and the first days of November: "I hope the media doesn't build him up to tear him down. He's a really good man." On this particular afternoon of the Powell book tour, half a million black men were amassing in another city. (On another race narrative front, it had been two weeks since O.J. Simpson's acquittal). Sure, the convergence of these events was coincidental, but the cosmic effect only enhanced one's sense that race symbology, in the guise of the Black Male, was transforming America. And on this day, there were other, smaller signs that we Americans live in a post modernist's paradise. For instance: across the avenue at Brentano's a more modest line was queued for another retired general: Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers; over on a side street directly across from the unbroken line awaiting the first black and youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, some garden jockey-like figurines--"artificial niggers," Flannery O'Connor called them--were displayed in a store window, with a sign beneath them that read the "Jazz Club Series." In the line, a wiry white woman in her late forties kept reminding her linemates that this one was longer than either Newt's or Maggie Thatcher's book signings, which elicited two reactions in this reporter: to celebrate Powell's achievements and wonder at the company he keeps. Colin Powell, after all, was a White House Fellow under Nixon, and worked quite comfortably in the Reagan and Bush administrations (though he retired under Clinton), and yet he has penned (with the help of Joseph Persico) an autobiography that is seductive, good-willed, and at times, illuminating. While it could be and was read as the dossier of a presidential hopeful, My American Journey is foremost a compelling document about one black man's trajectory through the American establishment, by way of that flawed institution, the U.S. Army. In the canon of books that articulate various states of black subjectivity, My American Journey has earned a place. Given this, it is no surprise that the media high point of the Powell candidacy-of-our-minds (besides the rush of hearing Powell tell Barbara Walters he didn't care what Al D'Amato thought) was an African American intellectual's investigation of the general for the New Yorker. Drawing from his own feel for African American history, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was able to convey the cultural gravity of a black man running for president, while sounding out the skeptics and locating the potential rifts in the community. Even as it existed outside of black political activity, the Powell almost-run brought a kind of detailed attention to black political experience that has been profoundly absent from mainstream political conversation. And a Powell presidency would have demanded even more rigor from the punditocracy. Which does not mean things wouldn't have gotten very ugly. ...Is Gone It was there, foretold in a recent New York Times crossword puzzle. Aftermath to cynics: B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S-A-S-U-S-U-A-L. Still, when Colin Powell announced that he would not seek elected office in 1996, I cried. I reacted as if a Mr. Deeds had left in the middle of the movie, departed before he could make the plea for what America is and should be. I wept (like I had through much of My American Journey) with some inverted belief that in a Powell presidency, restitution would be made, possibility restored, to my own father. While I had personal reasons to be vulnerable to Powell's tale of black family and military life--hadn't Floyd Coolidge Kennedy gone from this side of poverty to a solidly middle-class existence with the help of the U.S. Air Force?--I, like others, had come to see in a Powell candidacy the last, best opportunity to problem-solve as a nation before the theocrats and their opportunistic brethren balkanize the country into the next millennium. Whether I would have voted for him (and I believe I would) was of less immediate importance than having new conversations broached or old ones returned to in good faith (like affirmative action and abortion rights.) Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib called those excited by Powell the "mushy middle." But Powell's military background, and his oft-mentioned way of inhabiting both his metaphorical and actual skin, belie this kind of language; there is little that is mushy in him. (It's becoming increasingly easy to compare the Republican ideologues with their fondness for hard right rhetoric to their pop-culture nemeses, gangsta rappers.) A promising counterforce to the ugliness of the Republican slate, as well as an alternative to a young president who has still not acted out of courage or conviction, Powell has left the convention hall with his legend intact (though with his role in Desert Storm slightly tarnished), but that's cold comfort to the rest of us. Of course, Powell is not perfect. His pitch for the free market (which, let's face it, has more political muscle protecting it than any entitlement program in our history), often rings naive and unmoored. Fortunately, his sense of decency never does. In attempting to balance the demands of the free market with his ethic of compassion, Powell could have advanced a much-needed conversation about democracy and capitalism. Powell's avoidance of the electoral fray has led the media to conclude that there is little room in presidential politics for compassion and vision, only space for ideological compulsion and myopic personal ambition. And Powell's (unchanged) stance during the early weeks of the Clinton administration on gays in the military seems neither visionary nor compassionate. I for one cannot distinguish the difference between my "benign" blackness and my "behavioral" queerness, and am sure that in trying to, I would meet only schizophrenic anguish. Yet I still respect Powell's humanism. The Wall Street Journal's editorial page didn't miss a beat in drafting him into its culture war ("He mentioned a sense of family and civility, but most tellingly, Colin Powell said he would have sought 'to restore a sense of shame in society.' That simple but heavy word...is probably the idea that more than any other today separates what Republicans represent from their opposition"). But Powell's personal history reminds us that he is as likely to use shame to describe the misuse of Christianity by Republican pharisees as he is to critique daytime TV's unseemly traffic in difference. Sadly, one of the by-products of Powell's decision to enroll in the Republican Party, even as he foregoes a run at the presidency, is that the rightward Republican establishment will try to make his presence work for it--it will try to contain him. In this context, Powell's emphatic rejection of the office of vice president came as a great relief: he will not allow himself to be a token. Still, without the intervention of the media, Powell's desire to "broaden" the appeal of (Republican party) politics will be Sisyphean. Perhaps some of the more subtle disappointments in Powell's not running are the opportunities we've lost to explore anew the convergences of symbolic and material power under the sign of the presidency. What does it do to have a president who served dutifully in Vietnam? For one thing, the use of Vietnam as a tool for party pathology could be layed to rest, especially since Powell's response to talk of Clinton's "draft dodging" has always been to offer this dose of historical reality: there was a system of deferments that allowed Republicans as well as Democrats to avoid service. But Vietnam is not the only tired narrative Powell might have put to rest. According to The Wall Street Journal, in a recent survey people were asked which family member the candidates reminded them of: Clinton was a teenage brother, Dole a stern uncle, and Powell a father or grandfather. (Toss into this genealogy a sibling for Clinton in Jesse Jackson). A Powell White House held out the possibility of our finally exorcising the mojo Daniel Patrick Moynihan worked on the black family. Yes, having a black father in the White House might have reconfigured the obsessive meditations on absent fathers that have stalled us as a community. As a feminist, I am no doubt wading into philosophically (if not personally) troubling territory by wishing for a father in the White House, but in this I am hardly alone. Hasn't one of the fundamental frustrations with Bill Clinton been his inability to move from his role as a good son to a competent, judicious father? And Jackson, with his post-Powell plaint that "I still have the fire in my belly, and a clear vision in my head about what a president ought to do to make the nation better," couldn't help but sound like the perpetual son he has been for so long. Long Live the Thrill What happens to a reality deferred? Robert Irwin, founder of the New York-based Colin Powell Volunteer Corps, is endearingly optimistic. "I started reading very carefully the excerpt of his announcement, and what I saw was that he used at least a dozen times 'at this time, this moment, at this point.' He didn't even get close to General Sherman's statement that 'if nominated, I won't run, and if elected, I won't serve.' So all of a sudden it dings into my head, My god! Maybe my original idea of a nationwide campaign is right. Give him an offer he can't refuse." Burrell Haserig Jr., whose Maryland-based Exploratory Committee handed out upward of 70,000 POWELL '96 buttons and 40,000 bumper stickers during the book tour, is a little more circumspect. "We're disappointed. If you looked at the people on the book tour, they were ordinary people. You didn't see the bankers and the three-piece suits in the line. I don't mean to be so rude, but I think we would have had four years of excitement." In an Indian village in the hills outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, the annual elections happen something like this. The town honchos come to your house, knock on your door, and make you mayor for a year. A neighbor volunteers to take care of your sheep, your property, but it's an offer you can't refuse. When we endorse the notion of "fire in the belly," we might want to consider citizens like Irwin and Haselrig--the former an Adlai Stevenson Dem, the latter from a long line of African American Republicans. Each was tireless in working to mobilize for a Powell candidacy. Initially it seemed, like Jesse Jackson (or Cuomo before him), that Powell would have this one moment to strike. Yet in studying Powell, one begins to suspect strategy and caution have their place. If Clinton wins, why not Powell in 2000? Whether the country can wait that long is doubtful. But one thing is for certain, Powell can never again speak of a calling he did not hear, only a calling he did not answer.