In Describing His Life, Colin Powell Emerges As Lover of Tradition

MY AMERICAN JOURNEY

By Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico

Random House,

643 pp., $25.95

Would you buy a used car from Colin Powell? In his new memoir, ''My American Journey,'' Powell writes that he once applied for a license to sell used Volvos out of his Virginia home. The state refused because Powell's address then, as for much of his adult life, was an Army base. Yet Powell continued what he calls ''my true hobby'' of fixing up old junkers. In fact, President Clinton's gift to Powell upon his retirement was a rusted-out 1966 Volvo for the former general to tinker with.

By now, everyone knows the outline of Powell's life. Born in Harlem to Jamaican immigrants, he joined the Army after college and served with distinction both as a field commander and as a policy adviser. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf war, Powell became a symbol of the new armed forces: efficient, purposeful, and integrated. Popular interest in Powell as a presidential candidate rests on the hope that he could make these same three adjectives apply to the federal government, and even to the nation as a whole.

Powell's many references to his automotive hobby in ''My American Journey'' may provide a clue to his character. ''I am not ideologically liberal or conservative,'' he writes. Perhaps not, politically. But personally, he appears deeply conservative in a literal sense: He prefers old things to new ones. This is certainly true of cars. In 1972 Powell, already a member of the Pentagon brass, dealt with his wife's complaints about the appearance of their rusty 1963 Chevy by giving the car a coat of white house-paint.

Powell's conservatism also applies to Army rituals. ''I have to confess my nostalgia for some of the lost practices of the past,'' he writes. These include the company mess hall - replaced by large, impersonal dining facilities - and the ''company punishment book,'' in which soldiers' infractions were recorded in the days before lawyers ruled the world.

It even applies to the Episcopal liturgy. A lifelong Episcopalian, Powell takes a swipe at the successor to his beloved 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. He also expresses disappointment at the form of his mother's funeral service, held after ''modernists'' had taken over his old family church. ''I do not recall hearing the word 'God' mentioned once,'' he writes.

A love of tradition and order makes sense in a soldier. It makes less sense in a politician. Explaining his love of fixing cars, Powell writes, ''Cars, unlike people, lack temperament. When working on them, I was dealing not with the gods of the unknown, but the gods of the certain.'' Temperament and uncertainty are, of course, the daily fare of politics.

On the other hand, Powell shows in ''My American Journey'' that he has dealt effectively with people both above and below him in the bureaucratic food chain. A big reason is his ability to keep his ego in check, yet intact. ''Work hard, play hard, and take the job seriously, but not yourself,'' he advises.

More important, the appeal of Colin Powell today is precisely that he isn't a politician - or any other kind of salesman, even a used-car salesman. He appears instead as Mr. Fix-it, the man who will tinker with a balky, but still-running, nation until it works smoothly again. It's now up to Powell to decide whether he's willing to get his hands dirty trying.

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