WASHINGTON — It's much too early to talk about the next presidential election. And yet.... Already, among political observers, one can hear speculation along this line: that should Vice President Cheney decide not to go on for another four years, the logical and likely choice to replace him would be Colin Powell.
If he is willing.
And there's the catch. Would he or wouldn't he? I, along with a lot of other politics watchers, played that "if" game with Mr. Powell before the last presidential-selection process started. Sources close to Powell told me the general was looking favorably on running. Then, I learned that a group of prominent Republicans was forming with the prime objective of backing a Powell presidential bid.
"Powell for President" made so much sense. Polls back then showed he was far and away the most popular among potential Republican candidates. And as a black candidate - and possible first black president - he appeared to be the likely beneficiary of a sizable amount of a black vote that usually goes around 90 percent to the Democrat.
But then, I learned, Powell changed his mind. He bowed to the understandable desires of his wife, Alma, who feared that her husband as a presidential candidate would be a likely target of an assassin.
So, you might well think, that should put an end to the prospect of Powell accepting a place on a presidential ballot. But wait! In a recent New York Times Magazine article by Bill Keller, very near the end of a long piece about a conversation he had with Powell's son, Michael, we read:
"Michael said it was 'very, very doubtful' that his father would revisit the question [about running for president], having 'resolved it in a pretty fundamental way.' "
Then Michael provided this caveat to Mr. Keller:
" 'But, and I guess this is important, he [my father] does have a sort of consummate commitment and love of service and serving the country. In the extreme, if the country was at war, if there were the kind of challenges with which he could come to grips, if there was some reason he was the right person for the right time - I do think it would have to be some element that rose to that level in his mind to entice him to do it.' "
Here Keller writes: "That [the interview with Michael Powell] was the week before we declared ourselves at war."
Keller then goes on to write that even with our present involvement in war, he thinks Powell will stick with the decision that was dictated by his wife's fears. But, as I think it over, I believe there is a good chance that if Mr. Cheney steps aside - saying that four years is enough, considering his heart condition - Powell would step in as his replacement on the ticket.
I can easily conceive of the president deciding he needed Powell more in the vice presidency (particularly the kind of potent vice presidency that he has set up for Cheney) than as his secretary of state. And a president in need of someone to help him can be most, most persuasive. He would be telling Powell how much his country needed him and how much he needed him at his side. Then, as his son, Michael, suggests, his father might well find it impossible not to take the No. 2 spot.
In this instance, too, he wouldn't be running for president. So he might be able to convince his wife that he would not be as likely a target of assassins as he would be if he were seeking or held the No. 1 post.
I simply don't know how Powell would get by his wife's fears. But son Michael thinks it might well happen. So do I. Duty, duty, duty. I have so often heard General Powell cite this word as the all-important guide of his life.
And let's not forget the political bonanza from the elevation of Powell to the ticket. Bush and Powell. Wham! That's a lineup the voters would have a hard time not supporting.