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The Bush-Powell conundrum: Take two

By Lawrence Henry
web posted May 6, 2002

The estimable Wall Street Journal weighed in on Tuesday, April 13, with an editorial titled, "The Bush Two-Step," subheaded, "His Mideast policy has everyone confused. Let's hope that's the idea." And once again, the relationship between the President and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, takes center stage in an essay, this one notably witty. I loved the line about how "reading the Bush administration has become a little bit like Kremnilogy. No outsider really knows what's going on; we wonder how many insiders really do."

Of course, reading the Washington Post and the New York Times has been like Kremnilogy for a number of us for many years now, never more so than during a rather leak-tight Republican Administration. I've contributed modestly to the Bush-Powell controversy, with an essay called "The Bush-Powell Conundrum" published last week in The American Prowler. In that essay, I argued that it was extremely unlikely that the Secretary of State was "a rogue, a loose cannon, off the ranch."

There is another point of view. Kremnilogist I, supposing and surmising only, I am of two minds. Here is the other thought.

Think back to the pre-nomination rituals of the 2000 election. Of all the potential candidates, only one, other than Bush, really had a national constituency: Powell. The best information I ever heard about Powell's desire to run for the office, the word most likely to be true, came from long-time Powell friend Tom Clancy, in a C-SPAN interview. Clancy said Powell would not run because his wife was too fearful of the attention he'd attract as a candidate or as a President.

Colin PowellBut that doesn't change the fact that Powell might well have gained the Republican nomination, and could have won the Presidency. That degree of assurance must change a man, and change him for all time.

Bush, in the ascendancy, probably decided something along the principles first publicly, and rudely, laid down by Lyndon Johnson: "It's better to have 'em inside the tent pissing out," LBJ supposedly said of his intra-party rivals, "that outside the tent pissing in."

And so, voila, Colin Powell becomes George Bush's very first and most conspicuous cabinet appointment, an appointment Bush allowed to be rumored for weeks and weeks before he actually made it. Call it political deflection.

Now, in one sense, this does not change my argument that Colin Powell is no rogue or loose cannon. He may not be the most congenial figure to the President. President Bush must know now, as he has always known, that Powell would publicly represent the point of view most commonly held by career State Department types. He always has. He always will. And George H.W. Bush probably tipped his son, if his son did not already realize it, that Powell was a Foggy Bottom weenie.

But war came as a big surprise, and with it came a surprisingly big role for Powell, who might otherwise have been relegated to the announcement and negotiation of one or another foreign policy snore. Pre-September 11, Powell certainly seemed to have little to do with the big Bush decisions about the world scene - namely, the abandoment of the 1970s-era arms control treaty and the refusal to embrace the Kyoto Accords.

If this train of speculation is true, the Powell appointment was political damage control by prior restraint. And the Administration's apparent mixed messages nowadays do represent real conflict - with the result aimed out the White House tent flaps rather than in.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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