The Sad Romance of Colin Powell

We all know that there is almost no sadder story in life than love unrequited. The heart isn't rational; we love where the lightning strikes, and we have all either loved someone unworthy ourselves, or seen the spectacle of an intelligent friend stricken by the stupidity or spite of someone completely undeserving. Colin Powell is such a case.

Powell seems to be a man of intelligence and integrity, far more fit for high executive office than the crop of politicians we are breeding lately. His sad romance is his love of the Republican Party, a hypocritical group that doesn't understand him, has few overlapping values, yet is completely willing to take advantage of him.

The Republicans, in fact, despise Mr. Powell's mind; they are using him only for his body. It's true; can you imagine a white four star general who believed in affirmative action and abortion rights being allowed to speak at the Republican convention? Mr. Powell was only there because of the color of his skin.

The Republican pretense of diversity was one of the most calculated and dishonest spectacles of the election year. At a convention where the delegates were overwhelmingly white, male and rich, and dominated by the religious right, a succession of minorities and women complacently took the podium, and were cherished by the tightly controlled cameras. The agenda: to reassure the American people that the party which lost the election in 1992, largely because it flaunted its intolerance, has changed. But the platform that resulted (for anyone who bothers to read it) is just as hateful as the platform of '92. The proof of the pudding: candidate Dole couldn't even get his tolerance language inserted. New packaging, but its the same old cereal inside.

The Republican's pretense of diversity is not entirely a bad thing; it recognizes the fact that we now have a widely accepted national idea that diversity is good. It is the intermediate step in the triumph of a meme: first, it is nowhere, or only sparsely held; then it is strongly advocated by persuasive people; then it is universally accepted, though not everywhere honored; then, at the end of the day, if all goes well, it is practiced everywhere. The fact that, after 1992, the Republicans fear they can no longer win a presidential election if they do not pretend to be a big tent is in itself an optimistic sign.

Since the '60's, I have always seen the Republicans as the party of greater hypocrisy, largely because they have spent the last few decades swimming against the diversity tide. Before diversity (a positive) became so widespread an ideal, racism (a negative) was widely ruled out; since those days (starting somewhere around the Civil Rights Act of 1964), Republicans have practiced their profound racism by other means, never admitting to it, always talking around it. People are equal, they said; there is no racism; affirmative action isn't needed; it doesn't work anyway; affirmative action is racism. And so on.

The profound dishonesty of this indirect and evasive rhetoric was proven in 1994, when the Contract Republicans misunderstood their victory. Apparently the electorate had a spasm of disgust and fear pertaining to the incumbents; but the extremists in the Republican party believed they had witnessed the triumph of '92. For a year, while they were drunk with victory, a lot of the suppressed hate came out; there was a lot of gloating; it was acceptable for a short while to imitate people's accents and make racist jokes; books like The Bell Curve got talked up a lot. The backlash, proving the essential moderation and (perhaps) kindness of the American people, was immediate, and in '96 the party knew better than to let Pat Buchanan be its attack dog.

Colin Powell's problem is similar to the one confessed by Groucho Marx (or Woody Allen, depending on which attribution you believe): he does not want to belong to any club that would have him for a member. The Republicans are glad to use him as a decoy to attract misguided voters; but they neither accept him, nor will they ever listen to anything he says. His role is to be seen, not heard.

Colin Powell, come home. Personally, I think the general is better Presidential material than either Clinton or Dole. He's just invested all his hope and love in the wrong people, and they don't want him.