Mario Cuomo, who turned his back not once but twice on a beckoning presidential nomination, seemed eminently qualified to assess Colin Powell's turning away from a run for the presidency.
We were sitting with Mr. Cuomo at a Monitor luncheon just as the reports began to come in that within a few minutes the general was to say ''no'' to his great opportunity.
Cuomo told us Powell was doing the right thing. He said he thinks Powell would have met up with disappointment - rebuffed by the strong conservative majority in the Republican Party.
Cuomo did say he has a ''dream'' that Powell will eventually end up as the next Democratic presidential candidate. ''He's a natural Democrat,'' he said, ''right on all the issues, such as affirmative action, gun control, and the environment.''
''And his message is just right: That we should treat everyone as being in one family.''
Cuomo waxed almost lyrical in his praise of Powell: ''He is immensely valuable. He represents what the country wants most of all. They don't want Democrats. They don't want Republicans. They don't want politicians. They want ... strength and sweetness in a candidate, and Powell is strength and sweetness personified. He is a general and [a son of immigrants] and is compassionate. He has everything.''
Cuomo said he sees the strong possibility, if not likelihood, of Powell becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party. At that point, Cuomo hadn't heard that Powell, as he announced later that afternoon at his bowing-out press conference, had joined the GOP. But Cuomo doubtless would still be convinced that the general will get nowhere in trying to liberalize or moderate the party. And certainly Mrs. Powell remains a Democrat and a mighty personal influence who may at some point say, ''Colin, let's go back to where we came from.''
It seems to me that Powell has made a permanent commitment to the Republican Party. But what do I and so many others of my colleagues in the media know about what the general might do? So many of us were nearly certain he would run. At a Monitor breakfast preceding the lunch with Cuomo, I found only 1 of 10 reporters I questioned who didn't think Powell was getting ready to announce his candidacy.
I'm still of the opinion that Powell would have fared well had he entered the fray. Why else are all of the GOP candidates and President Clinton too breathing such a sigh of relief on hearing of Powell's ''no'' decision? Polls showed he could win the nomination and was the only Republican able to beat Clinton.
Certainly, Powell would have been forced to change some of his views. By doing so, he would have irritated and subsequently lost the support of some of the Democrats who now hail him - including, possibly, Cuomo. But I think Powell has shown he is a man of character and, as such, he would have stuck to his guns on his basic, compassionate beliefs.
We need Powell now, not four years hence. The growing racial strains in this country are so obvious. Healing this divisive ill is the prime need of our times. Powell as a black president would give hope to African Americans and renew their faith in an America that holds out its promise of opportunity to all. Powell holds the trust of whites, too; he clearly would have been a president of all the people. He could have done much to bring a divided people together.
But, of course, we know now it is not to be. We're left with a lot of ''maybes.'' Maybe Powell will still be wooed into taking a second spot on the GOP ticket. Maybe he will get his chance at the presidency in four years. Or maybe, just like Mario Cuomo, he will remain an attractive, influential force in the world of politics - and end up, in a few years, pretty much on the sidelines. Just like Mario.