1995: The year the future began
Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state and a hero of the 1990-91 Gulf War, scored three electoral votes in this week’s formal election of the next American president.
The votes were cast in protest by faithless electors in Washington who declined to honor pledges to support Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee who carried the state in last month’s general election.
Powell’s votes placed him third, far behind Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, in the formal voting for president. It made Powell something of a footnote in the turbulent 2016 presidential election, a race he had not entered.
The electoral votes also brought to mind what might have been, in the fall of 1995 when Powell toyed with idea of seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1996.
Back then, when the racially fraught O.J. Simpson double murder trial was lurching to a close, “Powell-mania” was loose in the land. Powell, an African American who was the high-profile chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State during the Gulf War, was characterized in 1995 as the “most popular American of any color.”
As I pointed out in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, news reports described Powell’s popular esteem as approaching papal-like dimensions.
The boomlet was tied in large measure to Powell’s memoir, which came out in September 1995 to mostly favorable reviews. The book, My American Journey, debuted atop the New York Times best-seller list of October 1, just two days before Simpson was acquitted in what frequently was called the “trial of the century.”
Powell’s book tour was closely scripted but attracted diverse crowds of admirers — “black and white, old and young, affluent and unemployed,” as the Times reported.
The book tour, the newspaper added, projected an “air of a political campaign — not the flesh-pressing campaign of a hungry primary candidate, but rather the roped-off, walkie-talkie-directed campaign of a sitting President. … Before each book-signing, the general [gave] a brief news conference, with reporters and cameras sandwiched between racks of calendars and cookbooks.”
Powell, who had never sought public office, was regarded as a very promising prospective candidate against Bill Clinton, who at times during his first presidential term seemed adrift and not quite up for the job. Powell-mania, John F. Harris, a Clinton biographer recalled years later, “was driving Clinton to distraction.
“The interest in Powell was an implicit rebuke of the incumbent,” Harris wrote in The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House. “It was all the more maddening for Clinton because he, too, generally respected Powell, even as he thought his reputation was overblown.”
In any case, the “symbolism of an African American under serious consideration for the presidency makes the Powell phenomenon historic even before he decides his course of action,” as the Baltimore Sun observed in October 1995.
During those heady days, Powell seemed “ever-cautious and invariably hedged when asked about seeking the presidency in 1996,” as I noted in 1995. Powell’s moderate-to-liberal views on social issues didn’t quite coincide with mainstream Republican thinking in the mid-1990s. But his standing and broad popularity easily eclipsed the appeal of other leading Republicans, including Bob Dole.
Powell had written in his memoir that were he to enter politics “it will not be because of high popularity ratings in the polls. . . . And I would certainly not run simply because I saw myself as the ‘Great Black Hope,’ providing a role model for African Americans or a symbol to whites of racism overcome. I would enter only because I had a vision for this country.”
Finally, in early November 1995, Powell announced he would seek no elected office in 1996, declaring that a run for the presidency was “a calling that I do not yet hear.”
In reaching the decision, the New York Times said, Powell had resisted “an enormous popular drumbeat for his candidacy” and had “spared Clinton what … might have been the political fight of his life.”
Clinton easily defeated Dole in the 1996 election.
I argued in 1995 that Powell’s popularity and book tour in 1995 represented often-overlooked counterpoints to claims that the Simpson trial and verdicts had exposed deep racial divisions in America. How could one square the popularity of Colin Powell with the divisiveness that the Simpson case had brought to the fore?
“An obvious answer,” I wrote, “was that the Simpson case was not all-revealing about race in America in 1995, that it was a misleading anomaly or an imprecise metaphor.”
Simpson, unlike most murder defendants, was able to tap multimillion dollar wealth and line up a high-powered defense team that routinely outmaneuvered the prosecution.
The 2016 campaign brought Powell another moment of unsought attention: Many of his private emails were hacked and released in September, and the contents were deeply unflattering to Trump and the Clintons.
Trump, he wrote, “is at 1% black voters and will drop.” (Trump won about 8 percent of the black vote in 2016.)
About Hillary Clinton, Powell stated: “Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris.”
As for Bill Clinton, Powell claimed the former president was “still dicking bimbos at home.”
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