Colin Powell: Big government's ungrateful son

Published August 13, 1996 10:31AM (EDT)


I'm sorry, but I just can't join the fawning parade for retired Gen. Colin Powell. His speech to the Republican National Convention last night -- greeted with the customary oohs and aahs from press and politicians alike -- was absolutely standard Powell. Calculated, safe and hypocritical, much like the man himself.

Predictably, his acolytes in the media wet their drawers when Powell made a passing reference -- so quickly that one barely heard it -- to his belief in abortion rights, affirmative action and tolerance for immigrants before swiftly moving on to the red meat of "government intrusion" and other standard GOP fare. Lost in the thunderous acclaim for the puffed-up soldier was the utter illogic of what he was saying. For what else guarantees such rights and social tolerance but the self-same "government intrusion" that Gen. Powell took such delight in excoriating?

The good general also reminded us of the inequalities and discrimination still extant in American society, again forgetting that the only effective instruments against such sins have been employed by intrusive government, and, since World War II, by intrusive Democratic governments. It was a Democratic president, Harry Truman, who began the long tortuous process of integrating the U.S. army (without which Colin Powell would likely not have been bathed in the spotlight in San Diego last night); and it was Democratic presidents who launched the civil rights programs and the anti-poverty programs that Powell's fellow Republicans have devoted every waking minute to destroying.

But then, Gen. Powell has long enjoyed the fruits of other people's labors. Hardly an up-from-the-ranks "soldier's soldier," Powell was the consummate Pentagon insider, skillfully maneuvering himself into the graces of those who could do him good -- Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, among others -- who just happened to be Republicans. Never one for the perils of the private sector -- the glories of which he spent so much time extolling last night -- Powell has relied, totally and exclusively, for his paychecks and prestige upon the kindness of big government.

And, just as in the Persian Gulf -- a military showdown that Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, resisted until a one-way massacre could be guaranteed -- so it was in San Diego, where others did the heavy lifting that made Powell's bromides so safe for the offering. It was Bob Dole who ran interference for Powell, at least temporarily blunting the growling intolerance of the overwhelming majority of delegates in San Diego. Do you imagine for one minute that Powell would have showed up had there been any risk that his hair might have gotten mussed?

For Powell to say that his appearance at the convention illustrates the capaciousness of the GOP tent is a bad joke. While previously, and from a safe distance, he had lectured Dole for failing to show up at the NAACP convention, Powell made no reference last night to a platform which qualifies as the most reactionary in the history of the "party of Lincoln." Nor, from his Olympian perch, did he note that the GOP grass roots has essentially been taken over by the balmy followers of Pat Robertson, a man who believes that the world is in the thrall of Jewish bankers. Of course, it's very convenient for Powell to overlook such unpleasantries; after all, he may need these zealots for his coronation in the year 2000.

What a charmed life the man leads. This morning on the talk shows, he graciously allowed as how he might consider taking a senior position in a Dole administration. A nation cries out its thanks. And Powell, with shoes unscuffed and pants pressed razor sharp, marches forward unhurried, at ease with the inevitability of his destiny. It's the American Dream. Brought to you by an intrusive government.


The GOP convention is more trade show than political gathering

By A. Lin Neumann


The Republican convention is not a presidential nominating process, it's a marketing opportunity. From Kraft "Republicans in '96" Macaroni and Cheese boxes stuffed inside the
media give-away bags to the $100,000 corporate sky boxes overlooking the convention floor, the Dole-Kemp coronation is a good-time sunbelt trade show.

It's as if we no longer have public life in America. Instead we have sponsorships. AT&T sponsors a room full of phones and desks for reporters. Southern Bell hosts a lounge for the media. Amway buys $1.3 million worth of TV time for scripted convention coverage. Outside the hall, a warehouse-size Chrysler automobile promotional pavilion has been constructed. Even the laces attached to the convention credential badges bear the logo of United Airlines.

In an age in which the Reaganesque ethic of hating government and demeaning the commonweal is no longer even in question, corporate partners increasingly call the shots at political events, and this conventionssed razor sharp, is in keeping with the times. The dozens and dozens of parties being held for delegates and officials around town are studded with such familiar names as -- no, not "Dole," "Kemp," "Reagan" or even "Eisenhower" -- but Pepsi, Philip Morris, Miller Beer, Pacific Gas & Electric, Pacific Bell, Pfizer, AST and the Irvine Company.

On Saturday night, the San Diego Union Tribune threw a massive bash on the bay for about 5,000 reporters, brought to us in part by Miller Lite and some 30 prominent California restaurants and wineries. San Francisco's Postrio provided the lasagna, L.A.'s Chinois served up chicken salad and Wolfgang Puck's pizza was everywhere. As the sky exploded with fireworks and the screeching roar of Jimi Hendrix playing the "Star Spangled Banner" erupted from banks of speakers, a woman danced next to me in ecstasy. "Southern California, man. You gotta love it!" she screamed over the din. The shindig was said to have run up a price tag of at least $500,000, a fact which irritated the newspaper employees who distributed leaflets at the event claiming that the paper hasn't given the staff an across-the-board salary increase in five years.

But the most Republican of California cities, "This is the event that has the whole world watching," enthused Herb Klein, editor-in-chief of Copley Newspapers, the paper's parent company. Klein, a former communication director for President Nixon, said the city hopes the hoopla will encourage investors to see San Diego as a hot spot for the good corporate life. There's even talk of San Diego trying to get the Olympics in 2008. "Of course, it's all kind of disgusting
but that's the game," said a wealthy local real estate developer.

While the likes of Peter Jennings, Andy Rooney and Arianna Huffington rubbed shoulders with local corporate leaders and Chamber of Commerce luminaries at a select Hyatt Regency soiree, hosted by Union Tribune owner Helen Copley, life went on pretty much as usual for San Diegans living just beyond the glowing convention center, in the Mexican and poor Vietnamese districts along El Cajon Boulevard, past the check-cashing joints, taco stands and noodle houses. Over on the north side of town, across the freeway dividing line, where middle America with its suburban sprawl and traffic tie-ups was on display, there was little evident excitement. "It's cool. It's okay,'' offered a skateboarder. A waitress at the posh Del Coronado hotel said the Republican customers were lousy tippers.

With any possibility of surprise scripted out of the convention, San Diego feels more like the host city for the Super Bowl. One half-expected John Tesh to be rhapsodizing about the priceless beaches and the sparkling flotilla of yachts glinting in the sun as Bob Dole and Jack Kemp sailed symbolically into San Diego on Sunday. You almost felt sorry for the group of weary, slightly dazed Buchanan supporters who were heading off to a Buchanan lovefest in Escondido on Sunday night. Although they were eager to battle it out on immigrants and gays and abortion, Pat was letting them down easy. "We're ready to keep this thing going," said one older white-haired man as he prepared to board a bus, "but I guess it's over." With their leader declaring a truce, they won't get to yell "Go Pat. Go!" and scare the hell out of the rest of us with declarations of cultural war on national television.

That just wouldn't have played in San Diego, not for a political process that treasures harmony, money, spin and contacts above all else. A teenage convention volunteer, interviewed on a local radio
station, said enthusiastically that he hoped to be a politician
when he grew up. He was here in San Diego, he said to "learn about the process, to see how things really work." And what was he doing? Stuffing macaroni and cheese boxes into the media give-away bags.

Quote of the day

Tom Wolfe, where art thou?

"We're not tourists, we're Zapatistas!"

-- A favorite chant of celebrity visitors -- including Oliver Stone, Daniel Mitterand (wife of the late French president) and an MTV film crew -- to the Zapatista headquarters in the Chiapas village of La Realidad. (From "Zapatista Tour Offers Mud, Sweat and Radical Chic," in Tuesday's New York Times)

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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