COMING soon to a media outlet near you: one of America's most intriguing political mysteries. Breaking two years of public silence, retired Gen. Colin Powell this week launches a 22-city book tour that will surely sell truckloads of memoirs - plus reintroduce the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to millions of American voters and perhaps position him for a White House bid.
Friends say General Powell is seriously considering running for president as an independent now that his book-writing chores are over. He'll decide in November, they say, at the end of his tour.
In the meantime, the general continues to play the coy candidate: To be a successful politician "requires a calling I do not yet hear," he writes in an excerpt from his autobiography published by Time magazine. "Nevertheless I do not unequivocally rule out a political future."
At the least, Powell says, it may be time to establish a third major political party to represent America's "sensible center."
If he does run, he'll start from a position that other candidates undoubtedly envy. Though Powell has seldom been seen in public since he left the Pentagon, absence has not made the public less fond: His poll numbers have continued to rise.
In a recent Times Mirror survey Powell had the highest rating of any national figure tested, at 62 percent favorability. GOP front-runner Sen. Bob Dole, by contrast, scored a 49 percent favorability rating; and independent gadfly Ross Perot, 40 percent.
To the public, Powell apparently remains a hero of the Gulf war, the man who stood before the cameras and said of the Iraqi Army, "first we're going to cut it off, and then we're going to kill it."
Never mind that Powell spent most of the war in Washington and that in the military his reputation was that of a shrewd bureaucrat-general, not a field commander. (According to biographer Howard Means, Powell's government contemporaries say he is someone who "ran a meeting better than almost anyone can ever remember a meeting's being run".) Never mind that by Powell's own account he was more reluctant than civilian leaders to go to war to liberate Kuwait.
There's just something about Powell's demeanor that seems to engender confidence in many Americans. He's anti-partisan, not just nonpartisan; and commanding, without Schwarzkopfian bluster.
Perhaps his poll numbers would begin to decline if he became a declared candidate and had to take more specific positions on such controversial subjects as abortion. One of his major supporters, however, historian Stephen Ambrose, insists that would not be the case. "Every time he opens his mouth he helps himself," says Mr. Ambrose, a board member of Citizens for Colin Powell, an organization trying to draft the general to run.
Experts said that Eisenhower would drop in popularity once he declared his political availability and had to speak more pointedly. That didn't happen, notes Ambrose, who's written a two-volume Ike biography. Voters weren't looking for position papers, he says - they were looking for inspiration.
Ambrose insists the country is now in a similar mood. "I get calls from all over the country asking 'What can I do to help Colin Powell?'" the historian says. "You think Bob Dole's getting any help like that?"
Powell's new memoir, "My American Journey," contains no controversial policy prescriptions that would arouse a portion of the electorate. Indeed, its most newsworthy bits make the retired Joint Chiefs chairman look good, unsurprisingly. Powell writes, for example, that both George Bush and Bill Clinton sought him for high positions within their administrations. He says that then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney asked for plans that included the use of nuclear weapons in the buildup to the Gulf war. Powell said "We're not going to let that genie loose," produced the plans and showed them to Mr. Cheney, and then destroyed them.
Early in the Gulf war planning process, Powell questioned whether it was worth sending US troops into combat to liberate Kuwait. "I detected a chill in the room," Powell writes, according to the Time magazine excerpt. Cheney told him to "stick to military matters".
Later, after helping organize the massive force that defeated Iraq, Powell agreed with the decision to halt fighting short of Baghdad, rather than press on, oust Saddam, and neutralize the rest of his Army. "I stand by my role in [Bush's] decision to end the war when and how he did," writes Powell.
In the book, Powell details his childhood in the working class tenements of the South Bronx. It's not exactly a story of bootstrapping up from poverty. Powell's family, of West Indian heritage, remains close-knit, and has produced many distinguished figures besides the general.
On politics, Powell's book is determinedly middle-of-the-road. He professes no attraction for either major party, criticizing right-wingers "who seem to claim divine wisdom on political as well as spiritual matters," and "patronizing liberals who devote little thought to who eventually will pay the bills." Powell judges himself "a fiscal conservative with a social conscience."
Does this all add up to someone who could make history by winning election as America's first black president? In Washington, many political pros bet that it doesn't.
Here's how the thinking goes: Powell's too smart to run as an independent. He knows he'd lose. Americans say they're fed up with the partisanship of the two major parties, but voting habits and political structure are hard to unmake. A new Newsweek poll shows Powell running third in a Clinton-Dole-Powell race.
General Powell could run as a Republican. The same Newsweek survey shows him handily winning a Powell-Clinton race. But to do so would turn many of his mentors, such as George Bush, against him. Many in the GOP instead dream of Powell signing on as the VP candidate on a Dole ticket.
That might not be enough of a plum to satisfy a man who has already spent more time in the White House - albeit as a national security aide - then has the incumbent. Many of Powell's supporters say they'd be bitterly disappointed if he signed on with the often slashingly partisan Dole - or, indeed, with any of the GOP candidates.
But Powell might do better than third party data currently shows. "It could be by spring there will be a groundswell of support for someone other than Clinton or Dole," says Andrew Kohut, a polling analyst at the Times Mirror Center.
There is one segment of the electorate that in recent months has taken a more negative view of Powell, according to Times Mirror data: blacks. Powell's unfavorable rating among blacks was 8 percent in February; last month it was 28 percent.
Some 500,000 copies of "My American Journey" are now in print. His book tour, he told Time in an interview, "will help the American people to understand who I am and it will also give me a chance to get a better sense of what is going on in the country."