Don't Count Out Colin Powell

FOR just a millisecond, the global airwaves of CNN echoed with the sound of eight eyebrows arching.

There we were, on CNN's year-end edition of "The Capital Gang," and I'd just revealed to my four co-conspirators in prognostication the identity of the person to whom the 1992 Democratic presidential standard-bearer (Bill Clinton) will offer his party's vice presidential nomination: Gen. Colin Powell.

Please don't adjust your set - I indeed said the Democratic nominee will choose as his running mate the very same Colin Powell who has served in the inner sanctums of two Republican presidents, first as Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, now as George Bush's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Today, free at last from the shackles of sound-bite video-punditry, we can examine just why the choice of Colin Powell as No. 2 on the Democratic ticket should happen. The reasons are compelling:

(1) The Democratic presidential nominee will be strong on domestic policy but inexperienced in international affairs. Bill Clinton, Arkansas' able governor, has learned his foreign policy from books. (So too have all the rest, including the potential rising star, Nebraska's freshman Senator, Bob Kerrey.)

(2) The Democratic presidential nominee will want to show fed-up voters he can rise above politics-as-usual. On the day he calls Powell, he may not even know if the general is a Republican, Democrat or independent.

(3) But the Democratic nominee will know Powell is a proven leader, impressive speaker and supremely qualified (unlike Dan Quayle) to become commander-in-chief and chief executive. He'll know of Powell's concern for Americans who toil in the burdened middle class or are trapped in the underclass - for those are his roots.

A black American son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was raised in New York's South Bronx. He rose to the top of the U.S. military ladder not by starting from a high-rung appointment at West Point - he merely enlisted, served in Vietnam and impressed his superiors.

However, not all his superiors have impressed him. Powell rejected Bush's offer to be CIA director, says Bob Woodward's book, "The Commanders," because he was "troubled" by Bush's 1988 campaign exploitation of black murderer-rapist Willie Horton.

To say Colin Powell gets good press is like saying Joe DiMaggio got applause in Yankee Stadium. Before "60 Minutes" on Jan. 12, CBS teased: "If you think you like Colin Powell, you'll love him after watching `60 Minutes.' "

And that's the way it was, as Powell was shown talking of the need to bring the spirit of Desert Storm back to America by being "a lot more tolerant" of our racial, ethnic and economic differences. The decorated war hero was embarrassed when CBS' Ed Bradley asked about a day in 1964 when Powell was driving from Fort Benning, Ga., to see his wife in Alabama and was stopped by a state trooper handing out Goldwater-for-president stickers; the trooper didn't take kindly to a black man in a Volkswagen with New York plates and an "All the Way With LBJ" bumper sticker.

Powell recalls: "He said, `Boy, you ain't smart enough to be around here. You need to leave.' And I said, `Yes sir!"'

Powell tells audiences: "I don't have any political fire burning in my belly. . . ." So - while we now agree the Democratic nominee should offer Powell the vice presidency - why should he accept?

He'll find his answer in a videotape of his recent comment to students: "There has not been a war, conflict or challenge that has come to this nation, where black men and women, who were treated like dirt, were nevertheless willing to serve the nation - in the hope that having served, they would be treated better. So when I came along, most of the barriers had been knocked down by Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers and many others. I benefited from those who went before me."

Those who will come after Colin Powell need the general from the South Bronx to be their Tuskegee Airman and Buffalo Soldier, to open forever that last barrier - the iron gate at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

(Copyright, 1992, Newspaper Enterprise Association)