DAN K. THOMASSON Bush no longer needs Powell
WASHINGTON -- In the spring of 2000, when it had become obvious that George W. Bush would win the Republican presidential nomination, I wrote a column stating unequivocally that if he was elected that fall, he would ask Colin Powell to be his secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice to head the National Security Council. The column noted that some Bush advisers were urging that an announcement to this effect be made before the Republican National Convention to quell criticism that the Texas governor lacked the foreign-policy experience needed for a president in this age of globalization.
The information had come from a source I considered unimpeachable.
Nevertheless, within a few hours after the column was distributed, I received a call from Ari Fleischer, Bush's campaign press spokesman and later the White House press secretary, who informed me politely that I was both premature and off-base in my reasoning. No such decisions had been made, he said, and my assumptions about the politics were wrong. I replied that if that were the case, it wouldn't be the first time I have been incorrect, nor probably the last. But, I added, I was sticking with the column.
A few days later, Powell showed up in Texas with much fanfare to confer with the future president about the world's problems and to talk about his potential role in a Bush Cabinet. It had become evident to nearly everyone paying attention that he had agreed to join Bush's team. Rice was not far behind. It was the last time I had an occasion to talk to Fleischer.
What also became clear was my source's prediction that Bush, both in his campaign and later if he won, would need not only Powell's expertise, but more importantly, his enormous national and international prestige. In fact, his popularity here far exceeded Bush's. He had attained what observers called "near-rock-star status," and would have been a formidable presidential candidate in either party -- much like Dwight Eisenhower -- had he chosen to run. That popularity, of course, ultimately was the root cause of his sometimes-strained relationship with the young chief executive, and the increasing acrimony between him and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney during his four turbulent years as the nation's top diplomat.
It wouldn't be easy for any president, let alone one who had come to office despite losing the popular vote, to realize that the country's chief spokesman in international affairs was more popular and influential than himself. And for Cheney and Rumsfeld, neither of whom realized that sort of fame, it was even more galling, particularly since they felt he was at times undercutting their aggressive war stance inside the circle of top advisers.
So it was inevitable that when Bush won a second term, this time by impressive popular numbers, Powell would not be requested to stay even if he indicated he would if asked. The former general, like a good soldier, had lent weight to the Iraq cause publicly while privately disagreeing with the strategy or lack of one and the failure to court support from European allies like France and Germany. Meanwhile, it had become more and more obvious to observers that he was out of step with the rest of the policy-makers.
Bush now has the victory that gives him the stature that he lacked in the first four years and he is taking full command. It seems clear that he will do so with a firm hand, tolerating none of the debilitating squabbles between warring factions in the State and Defense departments. (CIA Director Porter Goss's tough memo warning of low tolerance for public disagreement within the agency is an obvious signal of things to come.)
Whether or not Rice, nominated to be secretary of state and who is far closer to the president than Powell ever was, can settle these disputes with her direct line to the Oval Office remains to be seen. She certainly has none of Powell's personal standing in the international community, but her closeness to the Bush family, including unfiltered access to the president, will give her real clout among her peers in Europe and elsewhere. When she speaks, they will know it is without question for her boss.
What the president and, therefore, the nation will miss is Powell's internal voice of dissent. While Bush contends that there is always spirited debate about policy, there is likely to be far more "me-tooism." Meanwhile, one can only hope that Powell continues somehow to make a major contribution to the national welfare.
XThomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard.