It was the kind of slip Colin Powell could make only if his mind and heart were not in what he was doing. The secretary of State, who played no part in the election campaign, was on a quickie trip of less than 24 hours to Beijing, trying to work out strategy for the stalemated negotiations with North Korea.
Asked in a television interview about the status of Taiwan, he deviated from the language that has been standard since 1972, urging peaceful resolution of the dispute between China and its breakaway province off the mainland. Instead of speaking of "peaceful resolution," the secretary spoke of eventual "reunification," a word that sends supporters of Taiwan's independence up the wall.
The Chinese government was, of course, delighted. A Foreign Ministry aide said, "I think this visit to China by Powell is a very meaningful visit."
The State Department has been busy ever since explaining that Mr. Powell misspoke and meant no change in the 1972 formula contained in the Nixon-Mao Zedong "Shanghai Communiqué."
The irony is that if there is any pressure in the Bush administration to depart from that formula, it comes from the Pentagon and from the neoconservatives who lean toward supporting Taiwanese aspirations for independence.
It is generally believed around Washington that Powell is not long for the cabinet. He is reported by friends as suffering a lasting wound from having had to present the administration's flawed case for invading Iraq to the United Nations Security Council in February of last year.
He is described by Wil Hylton in Gentleman's Quarterly (GQ) magazine as "exhausted, frustrated, and bitter." He is said to resent the refusal of the White House to let him represent the United States at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Athens. He is aware that while he takes quick trips to places like Sudan and China, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is at the president's side and in the television studio.
The first cabinet officer to be named by President-elect Bush in 2000, Powell may also be the first to go in the second term.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.