Commentary Magazine

Colin Powell & the Conservatives

General Colin Powell ran his presidential campaign exactly as he would have liked to run the Gulf war: a massive build-up of force culminating in a strategic withdrawal. He left stranded behind him what remains of America’s centrist establishment—which had invested in the general the hopes so bitterly disappointed by President Clinton—and an assortment of conservatives who, breaking ranks with their fellows, had declared qualified backing for him.

The centrists’ enthusiasm for Powell needs no explanation. For them, he was perfect: conservative in tone, liberal in content; a complete creature of Washington; a man who saw the world precisely the way they did. But why conservatives should have backed Powell is more of a mystery.

Some of Powell’s conservative sympathizers argued from tactics: neither Bob Dole nor Phil Gramm, they reasoned, is likely to succeed in defeating President Clinton in 1996; Colin Powell can; therefore, let us overcome our mistrust of him, secure in the knowledge that no matter who will be in the White House, a conservative Congress led by Newt Gingrich will do the real work of governing the nation. Other conservatives, conceding the harm that a President Powell might do to the conservative cause, declared their support for him anyway, on the grounds that his election would salve America’s festering racial troubles. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in October, “For such a man to win the presidency would have a transforming effect on Americans’ view of racial possibilities.”

Both lines of reasoning were open to question. If Republicans were really thinking of governing from Capitol Hill after 1996, would they not be better off facing a moderate-to-liberal White House under the leadership of a vacillating and unpopular Bill Clinton than a moderate-to-liberal White House under the leadership of a strong and hugely popular Colin Powell? Worse, as a nominal Republican, a President Powell would command vastly more deference from the Republican congressional leadership than President Clinton.

As for the argument from racial harmony, its premises seemed equally dubious. Powell’s exploration of a presidential run ignited curiously little enthusiasm among black Americans. Perhaps that is because the message conveyed by his career—that blacks who play by the rules can succeed in America—is hardly news. Business leaders, police chiefs, clergymen, university presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and politicians by the dozens have repeatedly demonstrated this truth, without palliating the country’s racial conflicts in the slightest.



If the reasons given were unconvincing, what made the conservatives’ flirtation with Powell all the more puzzling was that their candidate was no Cincinnatus. Had Colin Powell been elected President of the United States, his victory would have lifted out of the margins of American history a long-despised minority group: staff officers. Every previous general to win the White House has led American troops to victory in combat. Not General Powell; he served two stints in Vietnam, once as an adviser to South Vietnamese troops and then seven years later as a planning officer. The remainder of his 35-year military career was spent behind a desk.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. The generals who plan operations are every bit as indispensable to military success as the George Pattons and Creighton Abramses. Good staff work can do what the brave but stupid William Westmoreland never did: win wars. Even so, desk generals—no matter how capable—have seldom excited much public enthusiasm. It was Ulysses S. Grant rather than Henry Halleck who swept into office in 1868; Dwight Eisenhower, not George C. Marshall, who galvanized the country in 1952.

Powell’s boosters lauded his dignity and integrity—qualities inextricable from his character as a military man—and it is certainly true that he exudes a manliness and self-restraint strikingly anachronistic in an age of hucksterism. His best-selling autobiography, moreover, tells a remarkable story.1 Powell personally transcended racial divisions in his beloved U.S. Army, and rose to the top by helping it to overcome those same divisions as an institution. When he reached the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he demonstrated in the most spectacular way that he owed his position to outstanding personal merit by bringing the nation its first unequivocal battlefield triumph since 1945.

Yet this argument from character also fails as a justification of Powell’s candidacy, for it severs the character of the man from his actions—and also from the record of his career. It is a curious fact about Powell’s account of himself that he seems far more eager to escape than to claim responsibility for his military actions.

At times, this habit seems no more than a defensive verbal tic, as if to ward off an accusation that no one has leveled against him. At other times, something more complicated seems to be going on. Thus, during the investigation of the My Lai massacre perpetrated by the division to which Powell was assigned as planning officer in 1969:

He [the investigator] then asked me if I was custodian of the division’s operational journals, and I said I was. He asked me to produce the journal for March 1968.1 explained that I had not been with the division at that time.

At the botched invasion of Grenada in 1983:

Relations between the services were marred by poor communications, fractured command and control, interservice parochialism, and micromanagement from Washington. . . . I was only a fly on the wall at the time. . . .

When the Clinton administration decided not to send the tanks to Somalia that would have protected the eighteen soldiers killed in Mogadishu in September 1993:

With only three days left in my term, I was in [Secretary of Defense] Les Aspin’s office making one last pitch to him to give [General] Tom Montgomery the armor he wanted. “It ain t gonna happen,” Aspin, the political realist, said. . . . I had done what I had to do, a soldier backing soldiers.

Artful silences like these under-girded Powell’s military career. They culminated in the much graver and more consequential moment when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he first counseled against military action in the Gulf and then, after victory in the field was secured, abjured the opportunity to see the fighting through to its conclusion and thus left Saddam Hussein still in power in Iraq.2

Similar duckings have also formed the basis of Powell’s (so far) abortive political career. At nearly sixty years of age, and after a decade and a half of service at the very center of America’s political system, it did not embarrass him to claim that he was only beginning to evolve a political philosophy. The same man who tells us in My American Journey that he was neither for nor against sanctions on Saddam Hussein was now neither for nor against school prayer, neither for nor against abortion, neither for nor against gun control, neither for nor against affirmative action.



The case for Powell as presidential candidate was that he was a leader; but where did he want to go? Perhaps he himself did not know. Perhaps, as cautious in politics as he was in war, he intended to wait for signals from others. Had he not declined to run, the only way to find out would have been to elect him President first.

This “trust-me” style of leadership obviously appeals to some deep yearning in American voters at large. The past two decades of highly charged politics have demanded from ordinary citizens uncomfortable amounts of effort, attention, and tolerance for conflict. And so one heard, in the fervent declarations of faith in Powell from the men and women who lined up to have him sign their books, a very understandable desperation to escape the clamor and din of contemporary politics. They seemed to be saying: stop forcing on us these harsh alternatives—banning or funding abortion; cutting or increasing welfare budgets; racial quotas or strict formal equality. Find some sensible middle course that will appeal to everyone, that will unite Americans as (in memory) they were united a generation ago.

The last time around, the candidate who attempted to exploit this sentiment was Ross Perot. Needless to say, Colin Powell is a vastly more admirable man than the opportunistic and sinister Perot. But the appeal itself is based on an illusion—that someone, somehow, can unite all of America’s contending factions into one post-ideological synthesis—and on a disturbing wish to be relieved of responsibility for the choices the country needs to make.



Which brings us back to the conservatives. What made their deferential treatment of Powell all the more striking is that it occurred barely months after Newt Gingrich had demonstrated the extraordinary potential of an entirely different style of politics. The most remarkable thing about the Contract With America—far more remarkable than its contents—is the respect it accords to the electorate: “Here is what we propose to do if entrusted with power. Do you approve or disapprove?” More so than in any congressional election since 1980, or perhaps even since 1946, the voters of 1994 knew in advance what their decision at the ballot box would mean. Quite unlike their opponents—who campaigned on the theme, “trust us to do what’s best for you”—the Republicans were seeking a mandate for a program, spelled out in advance.

Yet no more than anyone else, it seems, are conservatives immune to the blandishments of irresponsibility. Indeed, there is a historical pattern at work here: after a conservative electoral victory, it usually does not take very long before the nerve of some conservative leaders fails. It happened after 1968, with the dramatic expansion of the welfare state—and of affirmative action—under a Republican President; it happened again after 1980, when the Reagan administration shrank from carrying out its mandate to cut the size of government; and the Powell boom-let was an early sign that it might be happening a third time after 1994.

As they survey the arduous legislative program to which the Republican party has committed itself, some conservatives feel their stomachs flutter. Instead of hacking at the federal government, upsetting old people, and taking risks with the party’s popularity, why not (they ask) make it a top priority to elect a Republican President who personifies the right sort of values? This is the miasma into which the Bush administration sank.

In particular, there hovers about some conservatives the desire that national politics be not about governing (“mere budget-balancing”) but about teaching. In this view, not policies but values matter most, and what voters should seek in a President is not executive effectiveness but personal virtue. Up to a point, there is much to be said for this: moral leadership is a crucial part of democratic politics. Ronald Reagan’s optimism and charm did as much to redirect America as his tax cut and military rearmament, and contemporary conservatives will not succeed in their aim of shrinking a bloated government if the only arguments they can muster involve the gross national product and the inflation rate.

But a partial truth is not the whole truth. Politics is not religion, and values cannot be separated from policies. A President who makes speeches about the need for families to remain together while tolerating a tax structure that drives the mothers of young children into the workforce does not deserve to be called “pro-family”—at least, one would think, not by conservatives. A President who celebrates persistence and entrepreneurship while resisting cutbacks in government expenditures that lure poor people into dependency and that tempt corporations to substitute lobbying for research and development should not be praised by conservatives as “pro-work.” And a President who calls for racial reconciliation and the recognition of individual worth while defending America’s system of legal and administrative racial preferences should not, among conservatives, gain a reputation for color-blindness.

Would Powell have been such a two-sided President? It is of course difficult to say for sure; but there is reason to think so. In a thirteen-page epilogue attached to the end of his memoir, he offers up a breezy analysis of contemporary politics curiously similar to that of Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book, Middle-Class Dreams. Powell suggests that American voters

are looking . . . not so much for a different party, but for a different spirit in the land, something better. How do we find our way again? How do we reestablish moral standards? How do we end the ethnic fragmentation that is making us an increasingly hyphenated people?

To these good questions, he then offers the following answer:

We have to start thinking of America as a family. We have to stop screeching at each other, stop hurting each other, and instead start caring for, sacrificing for, and sharing with each other.

These are undigested clichés, of course, and hence not to be taken altogether seriously. Still, they are clichés with a certain provenance, whose shorthand name is the politics of meaning, the very politics to which Hillary Clinton once gave her blessing.

Now suppose, by contrast, that Powell had written something else:

We have to start thinking of America as a team. We have to stop blaming each other, stop labeling each other, and instead start doing our best, carrying our own load, taking responsibility for ourselves.

This second set of sentences is as full of clichés as the first, but it conveys a very different message: to be brief about it, a conservative one.



Since the collapse of public support for liberalism beginning in the late 1960’s, the once-dynamic ideology of Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson has survived mostly by indirection and evasion; by saying one thing at the hustings and doing another in the corridors of Congress; and by relying on a complicit press to describe liberals (of either party) as “pragmatic” or “centrist,” and conservatives (of either party) as “ideological” or “extreme.” The Powell quasi-candidacy raised these methods of evasion to a new level.

Ironically enough, the Powell boomlet peaked at almost exactly the same moment as the House Republicans’ bold decision to reform the Medicare program. For those conservatives who participated in the boomlet, the juxtaposition should have served as a stark reminder of the task they were sent to Washington to accomplish, and from which General Powell, by declining to run for President, has not released them.


1 My American Journey, with Joseph E. Persico. Random House, 643 pp., $25.95.

2 See “Colin Powell's War” by Donald Kagan in the June 1995 COMMENTARY.

About the Author

David Frum is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for National Review Online.

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