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Powell, what could have been

by By Bob Brown
| October 27, 2021 6:55 AM

My one brief experience with presidential politics occurred in 1995. My candidate was Colin Powell. The great historian, Stephen Ambrose, had emerged as a leader in the movement to win the 1996 Republican presidential nomination for Powell, and I was able to make contact with him in Helena where he shared a part-time home with his daughter and son-in-law.

Ambrose, probably best known in Montana for his authorship of his biographical work on the tragic life of explorer Meriwether Lewis, was also the biographer of Eisenhower: Soldier and President a one-volume life of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Typical of the sons of the World War II generation, I grew up a great admirer of Ike. As with Ambrose, I saw the attributes of leadership and statesmanship in Powell that characterized Eisenhower.

Stephen Ambrose immediately connected me to Charles Kelly, who was the national chair of Citizens for Colin Powell for President. I soon learned that Kelly was the son of a one-time president of the Metals Bank in Butte. Kelly and his wife lived in a posh townhouse in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. He had been acting Secretary of Commerce in the Eisenhower administration.

As president of the Montana Senate at the time, I had come to know a number of legislative leaders around the country, and Kelly encouraged me to cultivate them to support Powell for President. A Washington Post poll at the time showed 66% viewed Powell positively, and only 7% negatively. While Powell had not announced he was running, he was behaving like a candidate. He had embarked on a multi-city tour to promote the sale of his best selling autobiography My American Journey. My contacts with Republican legislative leaders were met with an overwhelming positive response.

Kelly told me that he was in frequent contact with Powell close associates Ken Duberstein and Richard Armitage, and they had assured him that Powell was open to running, and they had even discussed strategy with him. He would have to declare himself a candidate in the New Hampshire primary by the deadline that was shortly before Christmas. Powell’s chances appeared good in New Hampshire where independents could vote in the Republican primary.

From there the plan was to concentrate on other open primary states where Powell’s outsider candidacy would be particularly strong against the establishment candidate Bob Dole.

Ambrose and I were ecstatic when a Time/CNN poll taken in October showed Powell leading Bill Clinton 51–41. Kelly confided to Ambrose and I that Powell would likely declare his candidacy at his alma mater, the City College of New York. We were fired with enthusiasm.

Well, of course, it didn’t happen. A few weeks later Powell announced that he wouldn’t be running after all. To say that Stephen Ambrose and I were disappointed would be an understatement. We were shocked and devastated. Kelly told us that Powell’s wife Alma “just put her foot down.” She was mortally afraid that as a black man running for President, his life would be in grave danger.

Her fear was probably justified, and Powell couldn’t make the huge commitment without her by his side. What might have been a different course in history was sidetracked by a personal reason, not a political one.

Had Colin Powell run for president in 1996, he might very well have won. His moderate instincts, popular appeal and military bearing reminiscent of Eisenhower, might have broken the corrosive internal Republican influence of Newt Gingrich, which spawned the poisonous populism that resulted in Donald Trump 20-years later.

Had Powell been President there would have been no divisive Bush v Gore decision, and probably no protracted war in the Middle East. With the recent passing of Colin Powell we are deeply reminded of what “might have been” and how leadership truly matters.

Bob Brown of Whitefish is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.