Helping Powell Pen His Life

Biographer Persico describes his 21-month project with the general

The book tops the bestseller list. Its author, Colin Powell, has just finished a book tour widely deemed a roaring success. And the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff promises to announce soon whether he will join the presidential race, a step that would thrust him whole-hog into the political fray. Some conservative Republicans are already nipping at his heels.

Meanwhile the book's co-author, writer Joseph Persico, is just staying at home here, catching up after a grinding 21 months at work on the project. But he and his wife, Sylvia, a professional tapestry artist who put the loom aside to help type and proof the manuscript, say they are somewhat amazed at the press attention that is now beginning to come their way, too.

''My American Journey,'' the collaboration between General Powell and Mr. Persico, is the latter's eighth book, one the public is buying at an impressive clip.

Persico's previous published works include biographies of former Central Intelligence Agency chief William Casey, Edward R. Murrow, and Nelson Rockefeller, for whom he had been a speechwriter. Persico had also been an officer in the United States Navy and a US foreign service officer in Brazil, experiences that gave him an exposure to foreign affairs that was essential for the Powell book.

Powell writes of Persico: ''He has been my mentor, nag, minister, and above all, my partner and friend.''

The politics of the two men would seem, at a minimum, not to conflict. Persico's 10-year association with Gov. Rockefeller indicates his closeness to the liberal wing of the Republican Party. Powell describes himself as a social liberal and a fiscal conservative, a combination that has some in politics wagging their tongues and scratching their heads.

Powell, however, is struggling to avoid labels, Persico says, and he won't discuss the general's politics - or his political plans. Powell has said he will announce any political plans before Thanksgiving.

The general notes in his acknowledgments in the book that in the beginning, his search for a collaborator had not gone well. When Persico arrived in the general's office, Powell writes, he ''did not seem to be the least bit impressed by his first visit to the Pentagon and the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or by me. I had found my collaborator.''

''Powell told me he wanted the book to be highly readable,'' Persico recalls from their first meeting. Powell had read Persico's biography of Rockefeller and thought it very readable.

During a series of visits to the general's home near Washington, Persico taped hundreds of hours of Powell's memories, impressions, and opinions. The writer then pulled out what he thought deserved priority and compressed it, and ''juxtaposed it to give it drive and spark.''

The two men passed manuscripts back and forth and each rewrote the other's work.

Powell, son of Jamaican immigrants mixed in a bit of fun along the way, too, occasionally breaking into calypso tunes like ''Water Me Garden,'' Persico recalls.

The book is an autobiography, not a memoir, Persico emphasizes, recalling Gore Vidal's description of the latter as presenting only what the subject remembers. ''We checked each fact carefully with a variety of sources,'' he says, adding that Powell has a powerful memory and ''probably never threw away one piece of paper in his life.''

How did Persico find Powell to work with? He found a ''brilliant and articulate'' man who was also willing to listen to Persico's views of ''how a book worked, how to shape the book,'' the writer says. Did they ever argue? ''Well, no blood was shed,'' Persico says - but they had to hash out many aspects of the work.

''I had to draw him out on some subjects,'' Persico says, ''especially Vietnam, on which he was very reticent. He can be introspective. But I was able to pull the whole story out of him, and that's the advantage of working with a live subject - it's more fun, and you can cross examine him.''

At first, Powell offered only a few official facts about his two tours of duty in Vietnam, first in 1962 as an adviser to a South Vietnamese battalion, then in 1968 as an executive officer to a US infantry battalion. He was wounded both times. Some of the data came from a sweat-stained notebook Powell had carried around in his shirt pocket.

Powell had a lot of ''hidden anger'' about how the US military had handled the war and how US politicians handled it, Persico says. The Vietnam passages show, he adds, why later, as a top military leader in Washington, Powell almost demanded that presidents outline specific reasons for any contemplated military action - in the Gulf war, Panama, Somalia, and Bosnia, for example.

Powell, always an opponent of the Iran-contra deal, Persico says, was more fluent in outlining extensive details on that topic.

The collaborator's role also included giving the material a ''consistent voice'' - hopefully Powell's voice. ''Powell was a kid from the South Bronx,'' Persico explains, adding: ''He has a touch of a wise-guy edge. He answers the phone, 'What 'u say,' which I found out he had picked up as a kid from an old James Cagney movie. But when he starts talking about his country, he sounds like a Boy Scout.''

Persico recalls telling his wife that Powell was ''the most comfortable man in his skin that I had ever met. He has no need for trappings, name dropping, intimidation. He has an inner security and confidence that projects. The man you see is the man you get. He's apparently at complete ease in every situation. Although one of his rules is: Never let them see you sweat.

''He has a very fast mind, tremendous physical and mental energy. One sees why all the recent presidents wanted a piece of him. He's looked upon as an American leader who happens to be black, not as a black leader.''

Persico also says: ''I'm immune to heroes. But Powell got to me. A friend asked, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate the experience?' I had to say, 'An 11.'''

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