AN AMERICAN VIEW

Colin Powell and the Miss America contest

Once again, it’s the American heart scoring an early knockout over the American brain. Impressions count, not much else.

FRED BRUNING October 9 1995
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Colin Powell and the Miss America contest

Once again, it’s the American heart scoring an early knockout over the American brain. Impressions count, not much else.

FRED BRUNING October 9 1995

Colin Powell and the Miss America contest

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

Once again, it’s the American heart scoring an early knockout over the American brain. Impressions count, not much else.

As the last briquettes of summer ’95 burned low, Americans were not pondering drought in the northeast or tropical storms in the Caribbean, or even the furious medicare debate that has threatened to reduce the U.S. legislative process to an exercise in performance art (at one point, lawmakers wearing pinstriped suits squared off like belligerent drunks outside a biker bar), but two matters of unparalleled gravity. First was the future of the Miss America swimsuit competition, and, second, the ascendancy of Gen. Colin Powell, the man who would—or would not—be president.

The Miss America question was settled decisively. On the day of the contest, a million people dialled a 900 phone line and voted 79 per cent in favor of retaining the runway ritual. Traditional values and sexual orthodoxy thus preserved, can we please relax? The swimsuit extravaganza is one of those diversions Americans associate with psychic well-being and the continuum of life. Embarrassing, yes; irrelevant, of course; demented, maybe—but so what? Miss America is not exactly the Outward Bound of edification. This is showbiz and, as such, carries no more sociological weight than the NHL all-star game or a Wayne Newton concert. Next year, bikinis.

One must admit, however, that there is a certain charm to debating so seriously the morality of swimwear, or, for that matter, the possibility of a presidential bid by Colin Powell. Though the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has barely introduced himself to the nation as a political persona, he is venerated for his part in the 1991 allied victory over Iraqi shepherds and falafel vendors and generally adored ostensibly because everybody loves a big, handsome hunk of a guy in uniform. ‘We are here to see one of the great men of our time,” said an admirer waiting to meet Powell in McLean, Va.,

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

according to The New York Times. ‘We would like to see him as a presidential candidate.”

So smitten are Americans that a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that if he were running for president as an independent, Powell would be matching Bill Clinton stride for stride. The same survey projected the general a mighty close second to Senator Bob Dole in a quest for the Republican nomination. Once again, it’s the American heart scoring an early knockout over the American brain. Impressions count, not much else. A person is photogenic, has a nice smile, seems polite, laughs a little at himself, carries on a decent conversation—ask the chap out to dinner or book him for your Elks Lodge. But install him as president of the United States?

Perhaps sensing the absurdity at hand, Powell has sought—in connection with a publicity tour for his memoir, My American Journey—to define himself and his positions. The exercise proved something of a struggle. Powell does not come across as a philosopher, or a politician, or a reformer, or a strategy whiz, or a man with a passion for elected office. Pretty much, Powell, 58, comes across as what he is: a retired general

who maybe should have stayed in the army.

So what does Powell think? To begin with, he contends Democrats have suffered “an intellectual death,” but that Republicans are “alive and well.” Powell says he is no captive of the left—he opposes gays in the military, so there—and dislikes “patronizing liberals who claim to know what is best for society but devote little thought to who will eventually pay the bills.” (Pay the bills? Maybe Powell never looked at the defence budget from which his salary and benefits were drawn. That’s what you call rampant spending, General. That is what you call kissing tomorrow goodbye.)

Most odd is that Powell, who is coy on the question of the GOP nomination or a thirdparty run for the White House, seems more aggrieved with conservative excesses than liberal infamy. He’s in favor of some form of gun control, after all. He’s pro-choice. He doesn’t want to dump affirmative action or disband the United Nations. Prayer in schools? Powell is opposed. He describes the Contract with America hustled by House Speaker Newt Gingrich as “a little too hard, a little too harsh, a little too unkind.” And Powell, a Vietnam veteran wary of military adventurism, still won’t apologize for leaving Saddam Hussein in Baghdad—unforgivable, of course, to those on the red-hot right.

As for race relations, Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, raises serious questions about the ability of Republican leaders to identify with minority citizens. In one interview, he voiced distaste for the “demonization” of the poor. In another, he said that presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush were not “sensitized” to racism or its pernicious effects. “The problem with Reagan and Bush and [former defence secretary Caspar] Weinberger and their ilk is that they just never knew.”

What gives here? You have a fellow who endorses Republicanism in the abstract, supports many Democratic goals in the specific, trashes liberals and voices doubts about conservatives. Meanwhile, you have a cautious, race-conscious electorate swooning for a black American whose political beliefs— insofar as they have been articulated—would be clobbered if advanced by, say, Teddy Kennedy. Powell and the nation seem equally naive, erratic and unfocused. Does that mean they’re compatible?

When Dwight David Eisenhower came back from the Second World War and ran for the presidency, there was none of this confusion. Though hardly an ideologue, Ike embraced Republicanism, and the country embraced Ike. It was that simple. Powell, on the other hand, is more cultural curiosity than national leader—“more like Bob Dylan than Bob Dole,” gibed an essay in the Times. But we may be getting ahead of ourselves. Washington insiders are beginning to say Powell doesn’t have the stomach for a presidential race, but that roly-poly Newt Gingrich is ready. In that case, those in the audience wishing to express their opinion should not dial 900, but 911.