Whenever I see a face on the cover of Time, I take note. When I see that same face on “Larry King Live,” I brace myself. When I see it on the “Tonight Show,” “20/20,” “Nightline” and in every major bookstore in America, I close my eyes and duck. Surely this is another Hype Machine Missile, aimed straight at my head.
Which brings us to Colin Powell. Is it just me, or does it feel like a month ago, Powell was a name from the Gulf War and today, he’s our new president? That’s a big jump — especially without an election. Only one thing can launch you that far that fast: the media.
And I don’t mean to belittle my business here, but the media should not be telling you who is going to be the next president.
You should be telling the media.
Unfortunately, American politics, like most everything else in our nation, now suffers from glitz addiction. We are so used to media explosions for launching movies (“Showgirls”), records (Michael Jackson’s “HIStory”) and even computer programs (Windows ’95) that we can’t get excited about a potential president unless he comes with a marching band and floodlights.
Powell does. And as we now know, he is qualified to be president because .
. . . he wrote a book? Suspense builder
Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to belittle Powell, whom I find as engaging and delightful as the next guy. But being likable doesn’t make you a good president. And while powder-puff interviewers such as Larry King ask Powell about health care and a balanced budget, those are just questions on a TV show. Powell, to date, has no record on any of these things.
Powell was a general, and he cut a fine figure in the Persian Gulf. That was a TV war, and Powell fit our image of A Man In Charge. Of course, most Americans don’t know that before the attack, Powell didn’t think it was worth going into Kuwait, and he reportedly suggested that economic sanctions were enough against Saddam Hussein. As we know, Hussien was developing nuclear and germ warfare weapons, and without the attack, might have them by now.
But those are details, and most Americans don’t want details, they want feeling. They like what they feel when the engaging Powell fills the screen. They like his character — as if he is playing a part in a script.
Which, in a way, he is.
Powell, for all his brilliance, is on a book tour. And having been on a few book tours, I can tell you how they work. The more money a publisher has into a book (and Random House paid Powell more than $5 million), the bigger the publicity campaign. The PR folks call the top-rated TV shows and say, “Do you want so and so for an exclusive interview?” Pretty soon another show gets wind of it and demands an interview as well. Meanwhile, a magazine like Time buys the book excerpts for a huge price — which keeps them away from Newsweek
— and then, to justify the cost, puts them on its cover. That gets the publicity people honking even louder, and on it goes, like an avalanche.
Add to this an element of intrigue — such as, will he run for president?
— and you have the blueprint for selling millions of books. Which Powell will do.
What does any of this have to do with an ability to run the country?
Nothing. History’s lesson
Powell is not the first military man to try to ride his stars into the White House. William Henry Harrison did it successfully back in 1840, thanks to his reputation for fighting Indians. Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight Eisenhower all pulled it off. Americans like the idea of a disciplined military man taking charge — especially when they get fed up with the insidious mud dance of politics.
But a hype-free mind might question the wisdom of a military man in office at a time when domestic violence poses a greater threat to Americans. And while Powell is philosophical, remember that his career has been in the Army, where authority rules and people of lesser power do as they’re told.
Nothing could be further from the president-Congress relationship. The White House is all about compromise, cajoling and watching your back.
At the moment, Powell is in that perfect corner of the stage, an intelligent, charismatic man too new to have any flaws. This was also once said of Gary Hart and Clarence Thomas. I find it strange how Powell gushed for Larry King about Ronald Reagan, calling him a “great man” who “did wonders for this country.” Powell might want to check the now-closed social service agencies, environmental poisoning and tax loopholes for big business that the Reagan era left behind.
Reagan, by most accounts, was a great front man, leaving the details to others. That’s how you lead a book tour, not a country. Last time I looked, there was still a difference.