MUCH AS THEY WANTED TO, THEY could not stop. Not south of Baltimore at any rate. No hotel on the road to Fort Bragg, N.C., would take them in. So, in the autumn of 1962, a young black Army second lieutenant and his bride loaded everything they owned—and enough chicken and coffee to sustain them—into a blue Volkswagen and drove from Massachusetts to his new military base. Unable to find a gas station with a “colored” rest room, they pulled over on one occasion to make a trip into the woods. “It was a very different United States,” Colin Powell says today.
Different indeed. More than 30 years later, there is probably no town in America that would not offer Powell and his wife, Alma, any comfort they wish. Especially if there were a chance to ask just one question: “Mr. Powell, are you running for President?” For weeks now the general, retired just 24 months, has made appearance after appearance, not quite saying yes, but certainly not saying no. Powell’s five-week, 26-city promotional tour to plug his fast-selling, 643-page autobiography, My American Journey (Random House), is being viewed either as an elaborate publicity blitz or as the precursor to a run for the White House. Or both.
Except when he is picketed by the antiabortion right, which objects to his pro-choice position, Powell is welcomed everywhere with wild enthusiasm. For his first book signing—at a Crown Books outlet not far from his McLean, Va., home—admirers lined up for nearly half a mile to meet Powell, who signed more than 3,300 volumes. Such receptions provide a striking comparison to the forlorn drive he made with his wife three decades ago. “Even if you were a lieutenant in the United States Army, you knew better than to drink water in a place where you weren’t supposed to or relieve yourself in a place where you weren’t supposed to,” says Powell, 58. “You were bitter and you were mad, but you were an Army officer.” Powell says his military career kept him from taking part in the civil rights protests sweeping the nation in the 1960s. “The only contribution I could make,” he says, “was to knock down stereotypes with my performance.”
Which he did. He rose to become a four-star general, President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser, and the youngest and first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As architect of the Persian Gulf War, he became a national hero. Yet Powell says it was only the two-year process of writing his memoir, with coauthor Joseph E. Persico, that forced him to examine the course of his life in terms of a pattern. “I didn’t expect race to be a major theme,” Powell says, “but it kept coming up through the whole book.”
Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem on April 5, 1937, the second child of Luther and Maud Ariel (Arie) Powell, both immigrants from Jamaica. Luther, who had come to the U.S. on a banana boat and worked his way up to become shipping foreman in a women’s clothing firm, bought the family’s first home with a $10,000 windfall from a numbers game. Arie was a seamstress who occasionally reminded her husband that she had a high school diploma and he did not. Powell spent most of his childhood in a polyglot South Bronx neighborhood where his many Jamaican relatives lived among Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and Puerto Ricans. He is fond of making light of his poor school performance. “What I realized after writing [the book] was that I was a well-taken-care-of, ordinary kid,” he says. “He was a late bloomer,” says his sister Marilyn Bern, 64. “He was not a perfect angel, but he didn’t get into any real trouble.” By all accounts, his parents wouldn’t have stood for it.
At New York’s City College, Powell majored in geology and struggled academically with Ds and worse, but found his place with the ROTC. He was attracted by the structure, discipline and sense of camaraderie he found there, and he joined the elite Pershing Rifles drill team. After graduating in 1958, he joined the Army at Fort Benning, Ga., as a second lieutenant. He served as an infantry platoon leader in West Germany before returning in 1960 to Fort Devens, Mass., where he grudgingly agreed one evening to a blind date with Alma Johnson, an audiologist with the Boston Guild for the Hard of Hearing. “He was simply the nicest person I had ever met,” she recalls. The two began dating, and when Powell received orders to go to Vietnam in late 1962, he asked if she would write. “No,” she said, prodding. Her rejection prompted him to propose; she accepted, and they married in 1962 in Birmingham, where Alma had grown up, the daughter of the principal of a black high school.
Powell says Vietnam wasn’t nearly as shattering for him as it was for many soldiers. Patrolling the Laotian border in 1963, he injured his right foot stepping on a punji stick, a bamboo pole coated with poisoned dung, and was later awarded the Purple Heart for the wound. He still hasn’t made his peace with the war. “Part of me will never be settled with respect to Vietnam,” he says, noting that he still grapples with what went wrong in the war. Does he want to visit the country? “No,” he says. “I’m not ready.”
Despite Powell’s rise in the military, he was no Army-obsessed Great Santini. “He was not very strict,” says son Mike, 32, a Washington lawyer. “We didn’t call him ‘sir.’ He really took that off at home. Everything was very lighthearted.” Occasionally, in fact, the man so accustomed to command on the job was at a loss for words with his wife and children. (Daughter Linda, 30, is an actress, and Annemarie, 25, is a production associate with ABC’s Night-line.) Mike recalls the rather awkward introduction his father offered to the facts of life: “One day I was in the family room watching TV, and he walks in and throws a brown paper bag on the couch and says, ‘I want you to look at that, and if you have any questions, tell me.’ Then he quickly steps out.” In the bag was a book called Boys and Sex. Mike, nearly 17 at the time, had no questions—at least about the book.
In retirement, Powell still vigorously maintains a separation between his public pursuits and his family life. “We do not discuss politics,” says Alma Powell, 57. That has made it difficult even for those closest to Powell to predict whether he will or won’t run for the Presidency. “I’m in the dark,” insists sister Marilyn Bern. “I’ve asked him. I don’t get answers.”
In fact, the family’s much-cherished privacy may be a major factor holding Powell back from taking the plunge. “My first impulse is that I am a very private person, and you do not have that when you are in public life,” says Alma Powell. The general, too, enjoys life away from the limelight. When he’s not on the speaking circuit, where he makes $60,000 per appearance, he spends most of his time on his own in the couple’s three-story, $1.3 million mini-estate, purchased when he left the Army. (His $6 million book advance helped finance the house.)
But if he decides to run for the White House, Powell’s time of cozy domesticity—romping with his two grandsons, picking up “Styrofoam food” for lunch at the deli in the local Safeway, tinkering with his ancient Volvo—will be a thing of the past. Will he or won’t he? For now the old soldier is keeping his own counsel, but with no intention of just fading away.
LINDA KRAMER in McLean