Going for the Main Chance

AT the White House correspondents' dinner two years ago, I was talking to Gen. Colin Powell when Barbara Streisand approached, trailed by photographers. Powell turned his back on me and embraced Ms. Streisand while the flash bulbs popped. When I later chided him for his discourtesy, he said, ''Look, Dan, you come from the South Bronx, I come from the South Bronx. You went to City College. I went to City College. Didn't we learn that you always go for the main chance?''

Now the retired general has a good chance at the main chance. Opinion polls show him as more popular than any current candidate and as almost splitting the vote in a three-way race with President Clinton and Sen. Bob Dole. The question is: Will he go for the main chance?

On that he is elaborately evasive, which will help the sales of his book, ''My American Journey,'' coming in the fall. His way of being evasive is to talk in sentences like this, ''I don't find a passion for politics ... I don't find that I have that calling for politics.... I was truly a soldier.'' But, as a soldier he wasn't a bad politician. He worked in the Office of Management and Budget during the Johnson administration. He won the devotion of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger as his military aide, managing to sidestep the Iran-contra scandal. He served under President Reagan as national security adviser.

Politician? Look how General Powell has shifted on gays in the military. In January 1993 he said, ''The presence of homosexuals in the forces would be detrimental to good order and discipline.'' In June 1993, at Harvard, facing a protest by gay students, he said, ''We took on racism, we took on drugs. We will do the same, my friends, with the difficult issue of homosexuals in the military.'' In July 1993 Clinton announced the ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy. Joint Chiefs chairman Powell announced his support.

On controversial issues generally, where does the Stealth Candidate stand? That I can only surmise from his South Bronx background and from some of the things he says. In writing his book, he says, his biggest surprise was how much time he devoted to race. He wrote about how, as a boy in the Bronx in the days of segregation, he never lost hope that he could work his way up.

In speeches he talks of compassion for citizens most in need, of himself as ''a New Deal kid,'' and of the Republican Contract With America as ''a little too harsh.'' He says, ''I have something of a social conscience. That puts me left of center.'' This doesn't sound like a Republican, certainly not a conservative Republican. Senator Dole can kiss goodbye the idea of Powell as his running mate. No. 2 on the ticket is not the main chance. Should Powell run, it would probably be as an independent. But when I suggested to him that possibility, he skillfully parried with a ''hypothetical'' question, ''How does one do that under current conditions? What about all the front-loading of money that's supposed to be essential?''

It is true that, without Ross Perot's millions, running as an independent would be difficult. Unless popular admiration for Powell and disenchantment with existing parties created some kind of national consensus.

But meanwhile his speech formula remains, ''I don't know what I'm going to do with my life when my book is finished. But I want to keep the option open. So the only thing I could say in answer to your question is: I don't know if I'll ever announce. Just watch this space. I'll be around somewhere in public life.''

Do I think Colin Powell, the kid from the Bronx, is flacking books, or really thinking of running for president? As we say in the South Bronx, ''Beats the stuff outta me.''

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