Retired Gen. Colin Powell, whose flirtation with the presidency captivated the nation, stood back Wednesday and left the contest to a field of politicians who have so far failed to stir the country.
His decision, reached after weeks of what he called anguishing deliberations with his family, friends and advisers, evoked emotional disappointment from supporters and sighs of relief from other candidates whose campaigns have been overshadowed by Powell’s popularity.
In the end, Powell told a hotel ballroom crammed with reporters, he decided that he did not have the personal fire for a presidential campaign.
“To offer myself as a candidate for president requires … a passion and commitment that despite my every effort I do not have for political life, because such a life requires a calling that I do not yet hear. …
“Therefore, I cannot go forward. I will not be a candidate for president or for any other elective office in 1996.”
With his wife, Alma, by his side, the 58-year-old Powell said that “the welfare of my family had to be uppermost in my mind,” but that ultimately he had to look deep into his own soul to make the decision.
He ruled out a vice presidential nomination, though his name is certain to remain at the top of most Republican candidates’ lists. And for the first time, he said he is a Republican, endorsing the party’s fiscal policies and its moves to balance the budget. But he warned that the party might appear too cavalier about the effect of its budget plans on the poor.
He said he plans to work for charities and educational causes, adding that he has a particular interest in work for disadvantaged children.
His decision, reached Monday night but remarkably kept secret in a town greased by leaks, ended a drama highlighted by the very real possibility that a black man could be elected president for the first time in American history. Polls showed he would have been a formidable challenger to GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole for the party nomination and that he could defeat Democratic President Bill Clinton.
The very possibility of his candidacy won incredible media coverage and energized people normally outside the reach of the usual political cast of activists. Dozens of groups sprouted around the country to draft Powell.
In the Virginia hotel, tears welled up in the eyes of one such Powell supporter, retired investment banker Charles Kelly, who had worked for 20 months to build support for Powell.
“The country, the people yearned for his kind of leadership,” Kelly said. “Everyone is going to go to bed tonight with a heavy heart.”
In Seattle, city analyst David L. Barber said he would keep his local Powell group active, hoping to draw him into the presidential campaign in the year 2000.
“I’m just so disappointed,” said Barber. “The quality that came across was integrity … especially compared to … the other candidates.”
Not everyone was disappointed. But his potential rivals were diplomatic, refusing publicly to gloat.
Democratic pollster Peter Hart said Powell’s decision turned the presidential race 180 degrees.
“Bill Clinton goes from a situation where he was trailing Colin Powell by 15 points to a situation where he’s seven points ahead of Bob Dole,” said Hart. “But it would be a mistake to think that the problems he has faced in the past are going to be washed away. He still has to confront them.”
With Powell out, Dole enjoys a commanding lead over his GOP rivals, who are elbowing one another trying to emerge from the pack as the one alternative to Dole.
But there is one more potential rival to Dole: House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Fearing that Dole would be a weak challenger to Clinton, some conservatives in the Republican Party are urging Gingrich to get into the race.
Gingrich was coy about the possibility, saying Wednesday that “I’m not even going to think about it” until after Congress finishes its budget plans. With budget negotiations continuing, that would leave a small window for Gingrich before the Dec. 15 deadline to file for the New Hampshire primary.
The rough consensus of party insiders Wednesday was that Gingrich, arguably the nation’s most prominent Republican since his party took control of Congress in January, will toy with the idea of a presidential bid briefly and then also decline to run.
While Dole and the other presidential candidates were reluctant to openly criticize such a popular figure as Powell, the retired general was certain to face a bruising campaign.
Several conservative activists attacked Powell last week because he espoused some decidedly non-conservative opinions, including abortion rights, gun control and affirmative action.
Moreover, his wife, Alma, feared that he could be assassinated, a fear made more pointed with last Saturday’s assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Alma Powell, who stood by her husband’s side at the press conference, said “everybody has known that I have had a concern, but I want you to know that it certainly played no part in his decision.”
Powell said he already had largely decided against running when Rabin was assassinated.
And he said he understood that American presidential campaigns are grueling, “and that’s the way it should be. I mean, you should run this test of fire if you wish this highest office.”
But he added that he was disturbed by the personal attacks leveled at him by the conservatives.
“We all should be concerned,” Powell said, “about the nature of that meeting and the nature of the attack. When you move away from just disagreeing with somebody’s views and you move into ad hominem attacks to destroy character, you’re adding to the incivility that exists in our political life right now, which we ought to do something about.”