Editor’s note: In the run-up to the 1996 election there was a brief movement to draft Colin Powell, who had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Persian Gulf War, to run as a Republican or an independent against Bill Clinton. Polls showed Powell’s popularity to be high, and the prospect of a black president stirred many Americans. Powell himself eventually popped the bubble by taking himself out of the running. But while the possibility remained alive, Powell became a Rorschach to blacks and whites in a way that would later echo in the successful presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. What follows is an excerpt from a chapter about Powell in Reputation: Portraits in Power (PublicAffairs © 2008 Timothy Noah), a collection of profiles Williams wrote during the 1990s. The essay first appeared in Vanity Fair.
Nowhere is Colin Powell’s anodyne excellence more attractive than in the area of race, where he carries an especially powerful—and mixed—message. In a year when the Supreme Court has made historic rulings against race-based remedies for discrimination, and affirmative action is the hottest of political hot buttons, his life proves anything you want it to. Powell is cited by some as proof that affirmative action isn’t needed—and by others as evidence of how well it works. His potential as racial healer is hailed, in both good and bad faith; it is also exaggerated, as suggested by the existence of two Republican draft-Powell movements in Washington, one of them led by blacks, one of them by whites, each group certain it holds the key to the true Colin Powell.
Some white Powell enthusiasts, however, are peddling the comforting belief that racism is a thing of the past. If black men with bachelor’s degrees now earn 76 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts, they’re just not trying hard enough.
The curious thing about Powell is that this chameleon quality seems to extend even to the impressions of people who know him very well. “We’ve talked about how the army is not an affirmative-action organization,” says Kenneth Adelman, a good friend of Powell’s who ran the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration. “You can’t argue that you need affirmative action to do well. Because the army proves you don’t.” Yet Powell’s cousin J. Bruce Llewellyn argues precisely the opposite—also on the basis of conversations with Powell. “He’s for affirmative action,” Llewellyn says with certainty. “He wouldn’t have gotten where he is in the army if it hadn’t been for affirmative action….He’s said that a lot.”
One set of Powell supporters titles itself the Exploratory Draft Colin Powell for President Committee. With its offices in Prince George’s County, Maryland, the most heavily black of the suburban counties surrounding Washington, the group grew out of a black Republican scholarship organization. Its honorary chairman is Lionel Hampton, and its most visible spokesman is W. Ronald Evans, a 58 year-old entrepreneur who has interest in real estate and the auction business. Evans worked for Nixon at the Small Business Administration, and for Reagan at the Department of Energy’s Office of Minority Economic Impact. Evans resists the description of the draft group as a predominantly black effort, noting that “we have Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans working with us…. We have tried to take the color off it.” Yet Evans also declares of Powell, “Certainly, he’s going to be very, very positive in the civil-rights area because of whence he came.” Evans believes that “it puts us a hundred years behind of affirmative action is abolished.” For all the efforts of the group Evans represents, African-Americans have complicated reactions to Powell, who would by no means be assured of a large black vote. Powell’s real strength—his plausibility as a candidate—has far more to do with his appeal to America’s white majority.
Some see in him a chance to cast a vote for racial comity. “Without minimizing the number of people who are racially intolerant, there are actually a sizeable number of Americans who really would like to see things go better in the area of race,” says Paul Sniderman, a professor political science at Stanford University who has done extensive research on racial attitudes. “A lot of people would really see this as their chance to support a historic accomplishment.” Yet there’s also reason to believe that white admiration for Powell does more to deny and paper over the existence of racism than it does to ameliorate it. Says Juan Williams, a black journalist who has written often about politics and civil rights, “A lot of his attraction to whites is that it allows them to say, ‘I’m not a racist; I like Colin Powell. I don’t have a problem with blacks; I have a problem with blacks who don’t share my values.’” In this view, Powell’s chief symbolic importance is to send the falsely reassuring message that if he made it big, then so can anyone else. “There is a very mistaken notion that if you see one black man who has succeeded, then society is open for all black people,” says Clifford Alexander, a black attorney and businessman who served as Secretary of the Army during the Carter administration.
It’s no accident that accounts of Powell’s career tend to exaggerate the humbleness of his roots as “a ghetto child,” born in Harlem and “raised in the poverty-ridden South Bronx.” (“We get poorer and poorer,” Powell’s sister has wryly noted, as media interest in Powell grows.) The more disadvantages he can be seen to have started with, the more his great success validates the American Dream. It is clear in the comments of some of Powell’s close friends and supporters that they believe their admiration for Powell holds them harmless for the harsher racial judgments they may harbor of blacks in the aggregate. “I think he could be a fabulous president,” says one of his closest friends. “yes, partly because he’s black, and having a competent black president would be wonderful.” There is, in the remark, that unconscious condescension—the weary suggestion that fair-minded whites are so tired of giving opportunities to blacks who waste them. No one embraces this attitude more openly than Powell’s number-one white booster, Charles J. Kelly, Jr., who is the self-appointed force behind what he calls Citizens for Powell. Kelly is 66, a retired financier who as a young law student was involved in Citizens for Eisenhower. His confederates in the Powell effort include Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose and Tex McCrary, the eccentric public-relations maestro who also boosted Ike’s 1952 campaign. Kelly exudes both an indelibly Midwestern civic-mindedness—“sort of Babbitt on the Potomac,” in the words of an acquaintance—and nostalgia for a simpler era. He works almost full-time on his efforts to line up supporters for Powell, traveling around the country to meet with C.E.O.’s and chambers of commerce, drafting cogent memorandums to persuade reporters and potential backers that Powell can win the Republican nomination. He belongs to Washington’s most establishmentarian group, the Metropolitan Club, and he and his wife rent a wing of Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn’s enormous house in Georgetown.
Sitting on Bradlee’s spacious grounds on a warm July morning, Kelly explains that America is more than ready to elect its first black president. “If I talk to rednecks, and cabdrivers, and so on, they don’t see him as the black problem, which is associated with irresponsible behavior.” Kelly and I have stumbled almost accidentally onto this line of conversation, but he is suddenly deeply engaged. “Powell represents a litmus test in America,” he says. “What is the meaning of racism in America? Is racism skin-color prejudice? Does a car full of teenagers dressed in urban-guerilla costumes with a loudspeaker blaring offensive lyrics in traffic—is revulsion at that racist revulsion? Or is it revulsion at the offensive incivility of the process, at the arrogance of these youths? Which no one will speak to, for fear of being called racist—or for fear of their lives…. From everything I’ve been able to determine, the prejudice is behavior-related.” Powell himself has admonished audiences of minorities that racial progress demands a greater assumption of personal responsibility. But he always stresses, too, that racism remains a crushing fact of life in America, embracing the reality that prejudice, behavior, and perception act on one another in boundlessly complex ways.
Some white Powell enthusiasts, however, are peddling the comforting belief that racism is a thing of the past. If black men with bachelor’s degrees now earn 76 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts, they’re just not trying hard enough. Powell helps the problem, Kelly says, “just by standing there. His presence says, ‘Kwitcherbitchin. If I can do it, you can do it. Don’t run around talking about how the world owes you a living. Just don’t whine about it. Get on with your lives.’”