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Powell Leaves Us Asking What May Have Been

Now we’ll never know.

We won’t know whether, 130 years after the Civil War, a black man could win the presidential nomination of the party that ended slavery. We won’t know whether a popular political outsider could run an independent national campaign and put the two political parties on the defensive - and maybe on notice.

We won’t know whether white Americans will permit a black American to sleep in Abraham Lincoln’s bed. We won’t know whether the conservatives who run today’s Republican Party could beat back a moderate challenge.

But above all, even after his news conference Wednesday, we won’t fully know why a man like retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell wouldn’t run for president.

Now, a day after Powell stepped aside from a national campaign, the mysteries remain. Indeed, the subtraction of Powell from the presidential race multiplies the questions about Gen. Powell - and, perhaps even more important, about the American political system at century’s end.

Powell spoke eloquently but elliptically of concerns about his family, worries about his privacy and questions about his own taste for a monumental undertaking such as a presidential campaign. He worried out loud about “sacrifices and changes in our lives that would be difficult for us to make at this time.”

But mostly he said that even if the country was ready for him as president, he wasn’t ready to be the country’s president.

It was an extraordinary moment of reflection, but it illuminated as much about the character of contemporary politics as it did about the character of Powell.

It said that a presidential campaign was not “the right thing for the family, the right thing for me.” It said that American politics is intrusive and inhumane. It said that modern politics requires, as Powell put it, an overwhelming “commitment and passion to run the race and to succeed in the quest.”

It said that the demands were great, the rewards few, the risks excessive. “At the end of the day,” said the soldier, “I couldn’t go forward.”

And so the temptation of Colin Powell has ended. It was a double temptation - Powell’s temptation for high office, the public’s temptation for Powell.

It was one of the most remarkable courtships in modern political history, born of equal parts hype and hope.

For weeks the general traveled across the country, conducting an extraordinary book tour that was the big tease writ large. The full-page advertisements in national magazines were full of gauzy news clippings suggesting that Powell’s “American Journey” had put him on the road to the White House.

But the prospect of a Powell campaign had genuinely moved the American people, both emotionally and politically.

A Washington Post poll taken only a week ago showed Powell defeating President Clinton in a trial heat. A WMUR-TV/Dartmouth College poll showed Powell defeating Dole by a substantial margin in New Hampshire, with a third of the GOP likely voters saying they would abandon their current favorite if the general entered the race.

“There was real feeling for Powell, real hope that he’d get in,” said James J. Vanecko, an independent public-opinion specialist based in Mattapoisett. “People aren’t looking for specific ideological leadership, but moral leadership, and he was someone they thought could give it.”

But Powell’s real appeal was that he made the unimaginable imaginable.

In the wake of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Million Man March on Washington, he made racial reconciliation seem achievable. In a climate of unremitting public cynicism, he made political progress seem plausible. In an age where political life is controlled by professionals and governed by the predictable, he made the unpredictable possible.

“I’m sorry, sorry, sorry,” said Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. “He would have lifted the debate and centered people on the truth. He would have lifted the whole thing.”

No one knows for sure whether Powell would have prevailed, either as an independent or as a Republican. Nowhere is the gap between the cup and the lip bigger than in national politics.

Powell would have faced challenges big and subtle, would have been assailed on all fronts, would have been tested in ways that even a man who has commanded troops in battle would find difficult. He might not have survived.

Nor was there any assurance that a President Powell, either as a Republican or an independent, possessed the political skills to deal with Congress, especially one where the partisan and ideological tensions are greater than they have been in a generation. He would have held great promise - but he also had the potential to be a tragic president, inexperienced in dealing with a legislative branch that, in the past 10 months, has become unusually aggressive and independent.

Now we’ll never know.

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