I was walking down New York's Fifth Avenue last week and saw a long line snaking out of B. Dalton's bookstore. This must be the first shipment of books by Our Future President, I reasoned, the first sign of the ground-swell or earthquake or sea change or whatever today's seismic metaphor is for American politics. "Are you waiting for Colin Powell's book?" I asked a man at the front of the line. He looked puzzled. "No," he replied. "Regis Philbin."
Just a little reminder to keep this Powell landslide in the Book Primary in some perspective. As he ascends the next plateau, nobody yet knows how big his national footprint will be. After all, we're talking here about a Washington functionary-a man who calls the capital "this town," which is always a sure sign that someone's been there too long. And the media's colinoscopy has just started. While his personal history is almost certainly clean (army fitness reports would have otherwise prevented promotion), Powell will be endlessly prodded and poked.
But if he wins, it will not be because he floated above the battlefield like the Michelin Man. And it won't be because of his forceful yet unthreatening middle-of-the-road politics. They are necessary but not sufficient for success. The real explanation will be that Powell's inspiring life story and well-conveyed moral message touch something much deeper than politics, something marbled into our history and psyche.
Beneath the skin of campaign mechanics, this race --like so many in American politics-will be partly about race. Powell's color cuts both ways. It hurts him by reducing his margin for error. One false step and . . . See, we told you. That's the peril of the pioneer. Even today the presidency is a mythic office and letting a black man be "daddy" is a huge Freudian leap for many white Americans. (Recall that voters told pollsters in 1982 that they preferred Tom Bradley, who is black, for governor of California, but enough of them apparently changed their minds in the privacy of the polling booth to cost him the election.)
Yet Powell's color may also be a huge, almost hidden advantage, for reasons that have less to do with him than with us, and with our often unspoken desire to feel good about our country and ourselves. Even many racists don't like to admit that they're racist; voting for Powell is a way to show themselves they aren't. The very vehemence of voter insistence that this isn't about race testifies to its power as a positive force. The bomb becomes the balm. The people of South Boston, one of the more racist places anywhere, recently helped elect a black candidate as district attorney. Powell does well in polls in the South.
Of course this impulse goes only so far. If Powell hadn't been a soldier, his blackness wouldn't cut in his favor with white voters. And if he'd been a white retired general he would almost certainly not be so hot right now. But the combination of his race and his uniform has the potential to electrify. Why? Novelty, yes, and hype. But mostly tradition and transcendence.
The military tradition, back to George Washington, is about order, discipline, toughness and courage-qualities desperately sought in today's anxious age. The crisp, commanding public presence developed in the military (or occasionally obtained elsewhere) is what the public identifies as "leadership"; details of governing are secondary. This is the deeper reason Bill Clinton's lack of military experience has hurt him.
Transcendence has its own rich American history as literary, spiritual and political fuel. Settlers transcended geography by moving west across the frontier. Inventors transcended the past with bold innovation. Politicians, too, can tap the energy of American faith in rebirth and redemption, even if voters don't consciously understand this. Powell's life passage gives his campaign a potency borne not of guilt but of possibility. Blacks feel pride. And whites get to have it both ways-congratulating themselves for broadmindedness while comforting themselves with the convenient fiction that he is not "just" black, but has also "transcended" his color.
Even so, most unorthodox presidential candidacies (and all independent ones) have deflated because the movements behind them weren't strong enough. Powell has no clear insurgency to ride besides a vague anger against the system that he himself doesn't feel. This lack of passion is his greatest liability. It could make him a mushy candidate and status quo president, always splitting the difference. His record as a cautious bureaucrat reinforces this possibility. At the same time, if he were too passionate and angry he would no longer be unthreatening, and his whole aura of quiet firmness would collapse.
But what if Powell came to represent not a movement but movement itself-the shifting of political tectonic plates (those earth metaphors again!) or the advent of a much more diverse, interracial culture? This way, Powell supporters could simultaneously vote their hopes and their fears-their hopes for the continued vitality of the American dream; their fears that without someone like Colin Powell, serious racial strife is inevitable. Asked about integration and intermarriage on "20/20," Powell was casual yet effective, offering the prospect of somehow bridging a potentially frightening transition that looms just ahead. Rough terrain. Who can navigate it? When Barbara and Larry and Katie and the rest have moved onto fresher celebrities, this may be his lasting power as a candidate and force for good in American life.