IT'S beginning to sound like 1952 and 1956, when Adlai Stevenson and the Democrats knew the voters wouldn't put up with attacks on their war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Now it's another popular general, Colin Powell, who is getting the velvet-glove treatment and for much the same reason. No one is criticizing Powell, including President Clinton, who knows he may be facing the former head of the Joint Chiefs in the next election.
Some reporters at the recent Monitor lunch with the president were trying hard to persuade Mr. Clinton to take some digs at Powell. One columnist, who doubtless had her next day's story in mind, tried to lure the president with this question: ''Mr. President, how do you explain the Colin Powell phenomenon?'' Clinton, not to be drawn into that trap, chuckled and replied, ''That's your job, not mine.''
Then, following laughter from the assembled journalists, the reporter pleaded, ''We need help.'' Still smiling, Clinton put an end to the subject, for the time being, with these words, ''No, I'm the president; you're doing just fine.''
Clinton knows that taking on Powell, even slightly, is like taking a poke at Mom or apple pie. Eisenhower got that free ride from criticism. Everyone ''liked Ike.'' Or if they didn't, they never got even close to saying they didn't like him personally.
Powell, too, may be afforded that luxury - particularly if he doesn't personalize his own criticism of his adversary. That was Ike's way, too - he seldom spoke ill of his opponent. Indeed, he often acted as though his opponent didn't exist. That infuriated Stevenson and Truman, too, who had pushed the Illinois governor forward to run in his place in 1952.
But the reporters at the luncheon would not give up on their ''Powell question.'' Ten minutes later, one of them tried it this way: ''Mr. President. Even your severest critics acknowledge your commitment to civil rights. Do you think the country has changed enough that it would be ready to elect a black president?''
Here Clinton had something to say. ''I would hope that the American people could evaluate any candidate without regard to their race or their gender. And I would hope that that would be the case. And I - you know, that's the way I've lived my life. That's the way I've staffed my administration. That's the way I've done my work, and that's what I hope is the case in this country.''
Maybe Clinton thought he had put an end to this line of questioning. But he was wrong. Near the end of the hour's session, another journalist tried this tack: ''Mr. President, I realize this is probably our job, too, but I wonder if you would help us and tell us what you think is the defining difference between you and Colin Powell?''
I looked into the president's face. He was pausing. I thought he was considering a ''No comment'' type of response. But, instead, Clinton came up with this answer: ''Near as I can tell, he's - I'll tell you this: I was grateful for his statement.... I was grateful for what he said about abortion, that he didn't want to criminalize it, but that we should reduce it and emphasize adoption more because that's what I've worked hard to do.
''And I was grateful for what he said about affirmative action, because I believe in the kind of affirmative action practiced in the US Army, and I don't believe it constitutes quotas or reverse discrimination or giving unqualified people things they shouldn't have.''
Then Clinton provided this summation of Powell's emerging public agenda: ''So all I can say to you is that on those statements that he has made, I am profoundly appreciative. I think it's helped America to stay kind of in the sensible center and moving forward instead of being pulled too far in one direction or the other.''
This is Clinton talking about a man who very soon may be trying to oust him. Yes, it's sounding very much like the way Adlai had to deal with Ike.
Some reporters at the recent Monitor lunch with President Clinton were trying hard to persuade him to take some digs at Powell.