WASHINGTON – In 1996, the political world was buzzing about the intentions of a possible presidential contender – one who could make history.
But in the end, Colin L. Powell, four-star American icon, proclaimed that he would not run after all, disappointing millions of potential supporters but generating sighs of relief at the Clinton White House.
Powell, 71, showed Sunday that he could still affect presidential politics, declaring his support for Democrat Barack Obama.
The prospect of Obama becoming the first black president, Powell said, would “electrify the world.” Given his decades as a professional soldier and high-ranking official in three Republican administrations, Powell carries weight both with the military and with moderate voters. Now more of them could swing to the Democrats.
Even before Obama was first elected to public office as a state senator in Illinois, Powell was considered the odds-on favorite to become the first black person to head a major-party presidential ticket.
He looked to be a formidable candidate in the 1996 race: a black centrist, long an independent, who had led the victorious U.S. military during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But he declined to run, citing concerns about his privacy and a lack of passion for political combat. There also were reports that his wife, Alma, feared for his safety.
Instead, Powell said, he would join the Republican Party, hoping that his involvement would broaden the GOP’s appeal and humanize its attempts to reform social welfare programs. “I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln,” he said.
With his embrace of Obama, Powell has broken ranks.
The decision led to debate over his motives. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh suggested Powell’s endorsement was rooted in race and the hope that the Illinois senator would become the first black president.
“I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed,” Limbaugh said in an e-mail. “I’ll let you know what I come up with.”
In his appearance on “Meet the Press,” Powell denied that race was the motivating factor. He said that he had mulled over the decision for months and that he had told Obama, “I’ll give you all the advice I can, but I’m not going to vote for you just because you’re black.”
And his decision to cross party lines, former associates said, was far more complicated than black and white.
“It was a painful thing for him to do, for sure,” Larry Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel who was Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department, said in an interview Sunday. “One of the principal parts of his character is defined by loyalty.”
The Republican Party and Republican presidents “have done a lot for his career,” Wilkerson said. Powell was President Reagan’s national security adviser, then served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush before he became President George W. Bush’s first secretary of State.
Wilkerson said Powell ultimately was distressed over what he saw as growing divisiveness in the country and a return to “the vitriol and bigotry and prejudice” of the 1960s.
Adm. Henry Ulrich, the former commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe, said he believed Powell’s decision was not an easy one.
“Colin Powell is a very, very, very bright, thoughtful person, and I can assure you that he did not enter into this endorsement without giving it lots and lots of thought and give it all the due process it deserved,” Ulrich said. “I think it is remarkable that he has endorsed a Democrat, and so I am sure he didn’t do it lightly.
“Senator Obama is quite lucky and fortunate,” he added. “It should have made his Sunday.”
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