Powell On The Brink

Bruce Llewellyn got his call last Wednesday night in New York. His favorite cousin, Colin Powell, was on the line from the basement office of his stately home in the Washington suburb of McLean, Va. The retired general wanted to talk it through one more time. Yes, he wants to run for president, but should he? "He said he couldn't dillydally any longer," Llewellyn told NEWSWEEK. "He's getting to the point where he's got to decide."

Yes, he is. Back home after his rock-star-style book tour of America and Europe, Colin Powell is on the brink. The moments of easy adulation are over: the bookstores full of adoring fans, the fawning TV interviews, the splashy profiles in local newspapers. Now it's time to launch--or stand down. Powell has been told, correctly, that unless he declares in November, there won't be enough time to mount a campaign for the Republican nomination. Money must be raised, field organizers hired. The deadline for entering the New Hampshire primary is Dec. 15.

So in his "working" basement office, Powell is manning the phone, talking to everyone from Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett to possible fund raisers. Last weekend, friends said, he was to sit down with his immediate family. "It's fair to say that the family is thinking it through," son Michael, a Washington attorney, told NEWSWEEK.

One key consideration was Powell's wife of 33 years, Alma. "It's really difficult," said Llewellyn. "Alma is adamant. She's totally against it." A military spouse who has longed to put down roots, she worries about her husband's safety and cherishes her privacy, which would no doubt be violated in the hurly-burly of a campaign. One concern: since at least 1985, Mrs. Powell has dealt with depression caused by what friends tell NEWSWEEK is a "chemical imbalance" and has taken antidepressants (box, page 39).

Across the Potomac in Washington, much of the chattering class had concluded that Powell was past the point of no return. In the capital of presumed intentions, Powell is king. Wouldn't he look like just another sales-hungry author, they ask, if he said "no" to a campaign now? Why else would he have scheduled a speech in Orlando in the same city and on the same day as the GOP's Nov. 18 straw poll? Pundits point to polls showing Powell besting Bob Dole for the nomination and clobbering Bill Clinton in the general. "His people have built the aura of suspense brilliantly," says GOP media consultant Don Sipple.

But Powell's family and close friends think they know the real story: yes, he's "prepositioned" men and material in the forward bases of politics; no, this naturally cautious man hasn't yet agreed to invade. Powell's Pentagon style was to weigh the pros and cons as long as possible, says his former deputy, Adm. David Jeremiah. And Powell, Jeremiah recalls, always was a reluctant hero.

So an urgent campaign was underway last week-- not to win votes in the country, but to influence the man in the basement. Powell was receiving calls as well as making them. Potentates wanted to chat with a figure they seem to regard as an equal. One of them, NEWSWEEK has learned, was Nelson Mandela, who was in New York for the United Nations' 50th anniversary and phoned to ask whether Powell had made up his mind. Another was Jordan's King Hussein, who "called to thank him for signing a book," said Powell adviser Richard Armitage.

The Bush family is a cheerleading squad unto itself. At a party in Houston last week, NEWSWEEK has learned, the former president was touting Powell to all who would listen, though insisting he would not endorse anyone publicly. One of his sons, Jeb Bush, is chairman of the Florida straw poll, and he's made it plain that he would like to see Powell in the race--and that he would make sure the general could participate in his event. "I think he's running," Jeb Bush said. The larger Bush political family is on board, too. Powell enthusiasts among Bush alumni include Margaret Tutwilen Robert Mosbacher, Mary Matalin, Marlin Fitzwater and Bob Teeter, the polltaker who just circulated a how-it-could-be-done memo.

Political allies are pursuing a "Field of Dreams" strategy: build it and he will come. Powell's mentors and sponsors are reaching out to big-name undecided. Frank Carlucci, the former defense secretary, telephoned former New Jersey governor Tom Kean. Caspar Weinberger, Powell's old boss at the Pentagon, was also making calls. In key states such as Arizona and Illinois, informal "draft Powell" movements have grown into professional "turnkey" operations ready to be transferred to Powell. The general himself has sounded out at least two major fund raisers, New York cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder and comedian Bill Cosby. The aim, insiders say, would be to quickly stage a series of megabuck money-raising events.

Some FOPs--Friends of Powell--are taking it on themselves to needle the GOP front runner, Bob Dole, on Powell's behalf. Ari-anna Huffington, wife of former representative Michael Huffington, wrote a Wall Street Journal piece attacking the GOP Senate leader as a visionless flip-flopper- though he had campaigned hard in her husband's California Senate race last year. That goaded Dole into writing her a petulant letter and prompted threats of retaliation from the Dole campaign. Delighted to have made news, the wealthy Huffington--eager to be the Pamela Harri-man of the GOP--submitted another anti-Dole piece to the Journal late last week.

Powell is being inundated with advice from strategists who have three goals: to convince Powell that he should run, to show him how to win and to be chosen as part of his team. There is a cluster of conservatives dedicated to convincing Powell that he could win the nomination despite the right wing's enormous strength at the grass roots. These counselors include Bennett, whose wife works closely with Alma Powell on charity projects, Kemp, and Bill Kristol, the GOP strategist and publisher of The Weekly Standard.

Those who don't want to see Powell run were hard at work sending their own messages. "Most of what Powell has heard lately from the guys around him has been, 'Don't worry, Colin, it's a bed of roses'," says David Keene, a conservative GOP strategist and longtime Dole friend. "Well, we want to make sure he understands that it's a tough world out there." Even some of Powell's best friends agree. "Forget the adulation and get real," one says he told him last week by fax. "If you do this, it's going to be harder than anything you've ever known."

Anti-Powell conservatives view the general's candidacy as a last-ditch liberal conspiracy to hijack the GOP revolution--and they are now saying so, loudly. However he now tries to modulate his views, they say, his "pro-choice" position on abortion. combined with his support for affirmative action and gun control. make him anathema to the right. "He's Bill Clinton with ribbons." says Gary, Bauer of the Family Research Council. Even the Christian Coalition's Ralph Reed backed away from earlier comments that Powell would be acceptable. He called Powell's chances "dim," and for the first time Reed's boss, Pat Robertson. spoke out against the general.

While conservatives ranted, rivals researched. The Dole camp denied that any "opposition research" was "underway," but Powell's friends are convinced they've seen evidence of it. One object of "oppo" attention is likely to be cousin Llewellyn. a former Democratic operative in Harlem who has since become one of America's wealthiest blacks. In one case, he has helped Powell financially, recruiting him as an investor in a profitable Buffalo TV-station deal.

NEWSWEEK has examined the transaction. In 1985 llewellyn lined up dozens of wealthy blacks to buy the station in an exchange made more attractive to the seller because of tax breaks for minority-related communications deals. Powell put up $100,000, and sold his interest earlier this year, cashing out with $250,000, Llewellyn told NEWSWEEK--a hefty but not suspicious profit in the media business. According to Llewellyn. Powell was a passive investor--others included O. J. Simpson, Julius Erving and Mr. T--who received nothing more than quarterly reports and partnership checks. A Powell aide said he thought Powell had been able to come up with the $100,000 out of years of savings and profits from repeated sales of homes as he moved up the promotion ladder.

In the end, "oppo" and rumors of "oppo" won't really matter. What matters are his loved ones and his own heart. "He's never had to make a decision like this," says one of his closest friends. "There is no officer's training for this." And he surely has been reviewing "Colin Powell's Rules," printed on the last page of "My American Journey" Last week he seemed suspended between number four and number five. "It can be done!" says the former. "Be careful what you choose," cautions the latter. "You may get it."

A loyal man, Powell depends heavily on family and old Reagan-Bush friends. But as he war-games '96, the general is also sounding out political hands who could make a campaign really work.

One of America's richest African-Americans, this Powell cousin is the general's conduit to the black establishment.

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