By Gene Lyons
Updated September 29, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

My American Journey

  • Book

If Gen. Colin L. Powell’s extravagant coyness about his political plans strikes you as a bit calculated, just wait until you read his autobiography. Ambition? He almost never uses the word. To hear Powell tell it, the kind of multimedia celebrity — his face on the covers of Newsweek and TIME, interviews with Barbara Walters and Larry King — that has resulted in a reported $6.5 million advance and a first printing of 950,000 copies of My American Journey came to him almost by accident. A career soldier, he set out to be a warrior, not a so-called ”political General.”

Fortunately, it’s unnecessary to take Powell at face value. Both in the Army and in Washington, where striving is the rule and megalomania not uncommon, the best way to get a job is to pretend not to want it. Like his hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Powell is a complex, subtle, steely-willed, politically astute man who chooses to present himself as a simple, plainspoken soldier. Few readers of his consistently fascinating, if occasionally evasive, life story will be fooled.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell was drawn to military life as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York. ”The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved.” As a young, black New Yorker serving on military bases in the segregated Deep South in the late ’50s, he learned to keep his counsel. ”I did not intend to give way to self-destructive rage, no matter how provoked,” he writes. ”I was not going to let bigotry make me a victim instead of a full human being. I occasionally felt hurt; I felt anger; but most of all I felt challenged. I’ll show you!”

And show them Powell undeniably has. Essentially ”drafted” into applying for a spot as a White House Fellow in 1971, Powell — with a few strictly soldierly tours of duty thrown in — has had his arm twisted into serving Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton in a succession of ever-higher-ranking and more influential jobs before retiring in September 1993 as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Apart from Nixon, whom he never knew, he has many more positive than negative things to say about them all. Loyalty and mutual respect go a long way with Powell. It’s one of his most appealing character traits.

My American Journey, coauthored by Joseph E. Persico, is no flag-waving campaign tract. As with most American soldiers of his generation, Powell traces his deepest and most abiding convictions about war and the limits of national power back to Vietnam. He’s oddly reticent about his role in an early, inconclusive investigation of the My Lai massacre. Otherwise, there’s little in his condemnation of U.S. policies based upon ”euphemism, lies, and self-deception” that couldn’t have been written by a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Never again, if Powell had his way, would the nation send soldiers to fight without sufficient training, clearly defined political goals, and the full support of the public. He views the crushing defeat of Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1991 Gulf War as the vindication of his life’s work and takes issue with Bob Woodward’s portrait of him as a ”reluctant warrior” in his book The Commanders. Unhappy with the allies’ initial plan of attack, he helped Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf map the assault that routed Saddam’s army. Who told Woodward differently, he doesn’t trouble to speculate — impolitic, you see — but he remains grateful to Bush for emphasizing to a TV interviewer that it was Powell who had urged ”drawing a line in the sand.”

So does Colin Powell want to be President? Few readers will doubt it. Problem is, he found the 1992 Republican convention, ”with its racial overtones and troubling mix of politics and religion,” distasteful, and the Democratic nomination seems a foregone conclusion. Which leaves the reluctant candidate in a familiar position — eagerly waiting for somebody to twist his arm. A-

My American Journey

  • Book
  • Joseph Persico
  • Colin Powell