Colin Powell’s Decision: Historical Perspective
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Three of our regulars are with us: presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight are historians Roger Wilkins and Stephen Ambrose. Welcome everybody. Stephen Ambrose, in your view, what is the historical significance of this?
STEPHEN AMBROSE, Historian: (Gulfport) Well, I think it’s a negative, first of all. I think that the opportunity to improve race relations in the United States has been put off temporarily. And I say temporarily because my mind goes back to 1948, when Dwight Eisenhower turned down the Republicans and the Democrats. Harry Truman had offered to step aside if Ike would take the Democratic nomination. Ike later said that his worst night of his life was the election night of 1948. He’d assumed that Tom Dewey, who he respected and admired, was going to win and he would be off the hook. I think that we might get to the point that for Colin Powell the election night of 1996 is going to be the worst night of his life, because if Mr. Clinton wins, the pressure from the Republicans to become the candidate in the year 2000 is going to be just enormous.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Wilkins, what do you think the historical significance of this is?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, if you look in the long-term, it’s remarkable to see a lot of white Americans gloomy tonight because this black man wouldn’t run, when at the beginning of the century, a bunch of white Americans went nuts when President Theodore Roosevelt invited a black man, Booker T. Washington, to lunch at the White House. So people who say that we can’t make progress on this issue and don’t make progress are just wrong. I would make one other observation about racial progress. There’s going to be a lot of talk about that like Prof. Ambrose just did. The issue of racial progress doesn’t rest just on Colin Powell’s shoulders. There was a conservative columnist who said, “I would vote for Powell just on the issue of race.” If people care about race, if they think we’ve got a problem, which we do have, then a lot of people ought to get into it, talk civilly, look at the issues, look at the poverty, and say, we’ve got to have a civil way of governing ourselves. It’s not Colin Powell’s responsibility.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael, has this happened before, that you know of? Is there any precedent for this, somebody who is so popular and a potential candidate who is doing so well in the polls who turns, turns away from it?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, you know, oftentimes the fascinating thing is that people who are seen as commanding figures at the moment that they were considered for President and did not run turned out to be treated by history as much more minor figures politically. Amazingly enough, for instance, in the mid 1920′s, there was an enormous boom for Henry Ford, the auto inventor in Michigan, who turned out later on and actually at the time to some extent to be very anti-semitic and have views that caused him to be very much rightfully criticized by historians and people in his own time. I think the fascinating thing is that this is really a decision point for Colin Powell historically. If he had announced today, if he had won the presidency next year, as certainly was possible, he could have been one of the great figures in American history. I think we have to at least entertain the possibility that as a result of not running, he may be a little bit more like Mario Cuomo, someone who was seen at the moment as an important figure politically but because he finally did not run for President turned out to be a much more minor figure in the flow of American affairs.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author: I do, and I think there’s something else here. I think it’s not about race per se at all. The country was hungering with something different, something above the normal politics. You talk about civility. He talked about it in his statement to Mr. Powell, the civility, restoring respect in our public life. That’s what the country feels so strongly about. That’s why he was in a unique position. Steve Ambrose is right. It’s a negative because it wasn’t about being a Republican or a Democrat, but I think that people feel something’s broken here. And this was a figure that could rise above it. I’m not being naive about above the storm, but he could reach out and conciliate and pacify and bring together all of the discord and strands of this very very tangled life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I would like to ask Doris Kearns Goodwin a question but we can’t hear her, or she can’t hear us. We’re working on that. What do you think the impact is going to be on the electorate of this?
MR. JOHNSON: I think they’ll be disappointed. I think they’ll be let down. I think that there will be a huge sort of aftermath of not even wanting maybe to participate as much, is what I think, because the fact is I don’t think the choices, the way people look at them right now, are too appealing. That’s why he was in a unique position. I think that obviously we have a year to go. It’s a long time. There are enormous issues on the table, and I think the reason he was in a unique position is because so much is at stake right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. I think we’ve got Doris. Doris, is a different sort of person attracted right now to the–to running for office than in the past? Do you think that for example the–there’s more personal ambition involved, less sense of service, do you think, and do you see anything there that you can comment on?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: (Hartford) I think it is going to be a worrisome thing that for the future it looks like people who have a deep ambition and are fired by such a need that they’re willing to go through all the hurdles that it takes you to go through in politics now, when I think about Colin Powell’s decision, it seems like the negative things added up so greatly that he didn’t have that fire and passion to overturn it, but does that mean that we’re left with only those people whose needs is so great for power that they’re going to be the ones who are going to run for office, and does it mean that the people who have stature and reputation and have so much to lose are the ones that are not going to risk that by running for office? I think it raises serious questions about the whole state of our political process right now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger.
MR. WILKINS: Well, I think that Haynes is right, that as the electorate looked at this, what they saw with Powell, part of it, he’s an able fellow and he’s an attractive fellow, and that’s not to detract anything from him to say that part of his popularity was none of the above. And now people are going to look and say, is this all there is? What that means, maybe, that some other people will say, gee, a new day started at 3 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, fellows like Bill Bradley and Jesse Jackson may take another look at getting in.
MR. JOHNSON: I’ve thought for a long time, for what it’s worth, that this is going to be another extraordinarily volatile year, and it should be, because we ought to be talking about these questions. If Mr. Powell chooses not to run, then the issues are still there, so I think there will be others that will get in. We haven’t heard from Mr. Perot. We haven’t heard other aspects of this thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Ambrose, back to the history of this just for a minute, Eisenhower chose not to run in ’48, and then ran in ’52? Do you think Powell might choose to run in 2000?
MR. AMBROSE: I don’t know, of course, but I sure do hope so, and there’s an awful lot of water to flow and many rapids to get over and waterfalls before we get to that point, but he’s–if Bill Clinton wins reelection, I guarantee you the Republican Party from almost the furthest right in the Republican Party to the center is going to be just putting pressure on Colin Powell to become the Republican candidate for the President in the year 2000. And I’ll be one of them, myself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael.
MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, I think there is even an atmospheric reason for this, and that is that one of the most important parts of the office of the Presidency is the part that unifies the country, that’s almost a paternal, well, we would hope one day a maternal, figure. That’s one of the areas that I think voters have felt that Bill Clinton really has fallen short. I think that’s one reason why there’s been such a hunger for someone like Colin Powell to run. And one problem that I think is really illuminated today is that this process is so brutal and it requires such overweening ambition, it requires probably in an earlier day would have required a Woodrow Wilson to twist the arms of big contributors, the kind of thing that you can’t really imagine. The result is that to some extent it will screen out the kind of figure that really can fill that unifying role and that probably Colin Powell would have been very good at if President.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Michael, do you think this is really historically quite significant, or are we all just interested in this because we all–the press has been very interested in, in Colin Powell as somebody said here on the show, the press loves a good story, or do you think this really has lasting significance?
MR. BESCHLOSS: I think one real question is what might have been. There’s a reason why Colin Powell has occupied such an enormous place in our politics, particularly during the last 60 days, but really over the last number of years. I think one reason for that is this hunger for leadership. Another reason may be the feeling among many in the Republican Party that if they’re going to be a majority for a generation on both the congressional level and the presidential level, that even conservative ideologues feel that you’re going to have to be a bigger tent and move to the center with a Powell or Powell type.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what do you think about that? Give us some reading of the significance of this in your view.
MS. GOODWIN: Well, you know, it’s going to be an interesting thing to see. In some ways, like these last few months, we’ve almost had a love affair with this handsome stranger who came out of nowhere who had all this mystery and drama and excitement attached to him, and now we’re back to the familiar old faces. And yet, on the other hand, I think that the political process–we haven’t been in love with Powell that long–it’s only been a couple of months–the political process will throw up to us people that we’re going to have to get interested in because they’ll be the only ones there. And whether or not the Republicans take note from Powell’s attempt to move the party toward the center, whether Bill Clinton takes note from Powell’s stature and reputation and authority, both parties, I think, have something to learn from the mystery that attracted us to Powell in the first place. But I don’t know whether they’ll learn once they get into it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger.
MR. WILKINS: I think this is historic. Just as Jesse Jackson’s two runs for the presidency made the idea of a black President thinkable, this massive figure of Colin Powell just taking all the water out from everybody else will be remembered by everyone, and I think it’s taken that recognition of blacks being President one step further and if he actually does what he says he wants to do with the Republican Party, that is, open it up, embolden really the moderates in the party to step up, he will help make American politics far more civil, because it will just leach that toxic race veneer that’s over all domestic debate out of it, and that will be a historic thing for this man to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about the, the security aspect of it? I know that in the press conference Colin Powell said that it was not a factor in his decision, but it’s so dangerous to run for President, and we have the Martin Luther King assassination, we have–I mean, the race aspect makes it even more dangerous. This is historically new in the last 40 years. I mean, I know there have been assassinations, but it’s worse now.
MR. JOHNSON: The fact is that everyone for the last generation, virtually, happily until the recent two Presidents who came for office, was destroyed–the person who spoke for you was gone, whether it was Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or George Wallace or Richard Nixon, or the Kennedy Brothers, or whatever it was, a Lyndon Johnson, they’re all gone in a very quick period of time, so the country withdraws from that process, and it’s–there’s also the specter of violence, and our politics is violent. And our discourse is violent. And that’s one reason people were looking for something else. I think the significance is this was a chance, a moment, at least, where it was possible for an independent to actually run and win. I really believe that might have happened. Who knows? It made me positive, though, that the country has to realize there are no miracle people, and we’ve got to look at ourselves, and hey, politics is hard business, government is hard business, so get on with what we’ve got.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Ambrose, I was struck by something that Joe Klein of “Newsweek” wrote. He said that, even supporters of, of Colin Powell would have been disappointed if he had decided to run. I know you were a supporter, so I’m putting this question to you. He said, because he would have been permitted none of the eccentricities that made the political heroes of history memorable because we, as he said, the Puritans of the press, have become the enforcers of a vast arid public banality. Do you think that’s true?
MR. AMBROSE: No, I don’t think that’s true in the case of Colin Powell. I believe he is his own man and would have been his own man in a campaign, would have had plenty of laughs on the campaign, or would have stood up there and said, I got to think about that one, instead of giving a sound bite answer. There was a reason why the press was so ga-ga over Colin Powell. And it wasn’t that they didn’t have any other good stories for Monday morning. It was what those polls were showing, and what those polls were showing was a tremendous yearning on the part of the American people for a hero, and a sense of national unity, and Colin Powell was giving that to us, and he’s still in a position to give us a lot. And you’re quite right in the whole show tonight that you get off that the presidential stage, and you’re not on any–there’s nothing else to compare to it. But he still can do a lot of very good things for this country, and we’ll see what happens in four years from now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, what do you think? What about Joe Klein’s point that it’s very difficult for a candidate to have eccentricities, that there’s a kind of–that the press asks for a kind of banality from candidates, or else they’re exposed?
MS. GOODWIN: I’m not sure that the press asks for banalities. I think it’s just that the private lives of our public leaders are so much more exposed today that if you’re sensitive to protecting your family, as I think Powell was and is, it’s much harder to not get defensive when somebody asks you those really rude questions about what your wife and your children are thinking and feeling at that exact moment. They wouldn’t have thought about that 50 years ago. There’s a level of intrusion today that keeps the soul or the individual of the candidate away from being protected. And I don’t know that it’s banality, but I think it’s that intrusion that’s much harder, and I don’t know whether Colin Powell would have allowed himself to go through that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is it worse now, or not, Michael?
MR. BESCHLOSS: It’s a lot worse, and you have to compare tonight to the moment that Dwight Eisenhower decided to run in the Spring of 1952. He had, of course, to deal with rumors that his wife drank too much, that he was involved with a woman during the war, in England, rumors about which the evidence is very ambiguous even to this day among historians, but it was nothing like the brutality of the kind of road that a presidential candidate has to run now, especially one like Colin Powell, who has not had a history in elective office where these questions have been answered before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Roger, do you think that if a man lke Colin Powell decides not to run, that something is very, very wrong, or do you think this is individual with him really?
MR. WILKINS: Well, I think it’s individual with him. After all, this fellow has given this country 35 years of uninterrupted service. He’s got to at least have a couple of years of freedom. When he came out, he said that he owed a terrific debt to his wife for all of those years of faithful army service. They have a right to some privacy, some time to be together and to enjoy themselves and their children. He may reverse this. After all, he did not make the kind of statement that a former general made: “If nominated, I will not run, if elected, I shall not serve.”
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re talking about Sherman.
MR. WILKINS: It was not Shermanesque, so I think one of the nice things is to look at a sane man under the glare of the public spotlight who has his own priorities and knows himself. That was a lovely thing today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, gentlemen, Doris, thank you very much.