Gen. Colin Powell

Born to be vice president. 

A hallowed rite of American politics ended Tuesday. Every few weeks for the past six years, reporters have speculated hopefully about whether Gen. Colin Powell would deign to run for president or vice president. Countless polls have confirmed the general’s astounding popularity—only 7 percent negative! That’s better than motherhood! His every refusal has been dissected for a loophole. (What exactly does, “My answer is irrevocably no” mean, anyway?) Even on Monday, when it was obvious that George W. Bush would pick Dick Cheney, Dan Rather was claiming that Bush and his father were still trying to convince the general to grace the ticket. (In this week’s ” Readme,” Michael Kinsley argues that Cheney’s selection still may not silence the Powell-for-veep huffing.)

When he declined a presidential run in 1995, Powell declared that running for office was “a calling that I do not yet hear.” Now it seems clear he never will. Powell has telegraphed that he would serve as Bush’s secretary of state, and he will almost certainly get the job if Dubya wins. But electoral politics is not likely. The general will be 67 by the next presidential election, too old for a first run. He has become the Mario Cuomo of the GOP, the girl who always got away.

So this is the moment to wonder what we missed. What kind of No. 1 or No. 2 would Powell have been? Powell’s fairytale biography tends to overwhelm actual thinking about him. His story is too perfect. The son of striving West Indian immigrants, he grew up in the tough, polyglot South Bronx. He was an aimless kid, but he found order and meaning in the Army. He rode military service from Vietnam soldier to national security adviser to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Eventually, he prosecuted the most successful war in U.S. history, then retired to help at-risk kids.

For many, Powell is confirmation of the American dream: A black man from modest circumstances can do anything if he works hard enough. He affirmed idealism about the U.S. military: It is the meritocratic, colorblind institution it claims to be. And he is a role model and champion of hard work, discipline, honesty, loyalty, patriotism, and good humor. But the retelling of his spotless life suppresses cool consideration of the general’s fitness for office.

Powell would have been a funny kind of candidate. American voters demand that their politicians be (or pretend to be) mavericks. Every presidential candidate promises to shake things up, claims to be impatient with the ways of Washington, and wants to seize power back from the bureaucrats and return it to the people. Generals have traditionally made compelling candidates because they appear to be warriors who won’t be deterred by Beltway opposition. This is not Powell. Despite his military service and apparent outsiderness, he has exactly the qualities Americans say they don’t want in a president. He is an organization man, fiercely loyal to bureaucracies, happy with the status quo, at least as comfortable taking orders as giving them.

Powell’s military career testifies to his skills as a bureaucratic infighter. He had one year of real combat—a nasty stint as a Vietnam adviser—but mostly he was a staff officer, planning and advising superiors on strategy and logistics. Powell was great at getting along. In a 1968-69 tour of Vietnam, he served as a staff officer in the division that committed the My Lai massacre. He arrived in Vietnam after the massacre occurred but before it was discovered. As Charles Lane chronicled in the New Republic, Powell made no aggressive effort to investigate war crimes when he was asked to look into them, and he brushed off a soldier who had complained. According to Lane, Powell also kept his head down as a White House fellow during Watergate. When Powell worked for Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, he objected quietly to the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal but then helped Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger arrange the dubious transfer of missiles to Iran.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell confirmed his reputation for caution and bureaucratic chess-playing. He won credit from goo-goos for cutting the Pentagon budget after the Cold War. But military reformers were dismayed by his methods. He did not significantly trim any of the four service arms. More important, he made little effort to reorganize the Pentagon to fight new, less conventional kinds of war.

Powell also preached the Powell doctrine, his gospel—stemming from Vietnam—that American troops should never be committed to battle without overwhelming force and overwhelming popular support. This philosophy, designed to protect the U.S. military from anything that could tarnish its reputation, arguably elevated Pentagon interests over national ones. So when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Powell opposed driving him out, favoring sanctions instead. When war came, Powell pushed to end it quickly before Saddam fell or the Republican Guard was smashed. Powell, who voiced his objections privately, carried out President Bush’s orders superbly and ended up a hero.

But Powell has never absorbed any blame for the U.S. decision not to vanquish Saddam, nor for our failure to intervene in Bosnia, another policy he pushed. In Sunday’s Washington Post, Robert Kagan contended that Powell’s reluctance to use force, discomfort with the U.S. acting as a global cop, and general caution make him an iffy choice for secretary of state. Under Powell, Kagan hints, the Department of State might retrench into isolationism and inactivity just when the United States must be more engaged in the world than ever.

Since 1997, Powell has devoted much of his time to America’s Promise, a group he founded to encourage volunteering that helps kids. It too has been marked by his establishmentarian, bureaucratic style. Powell, a superb recruiter, enlisted corporations, nonprofits, and governments to commit resources to children. (America’s Promise pushes mentoring, safe places for kids, and child health among its “five promises.”) But despite scads of Powell-centered PR, it’s not clear the organization has achieved much. The New York Times, the newspaper Youth Today, and philanthropy scholar Pablo Eisenberg have smacked America’s Promise for operating secretively, exaggerating accomplishments, and resisting objective assessments of its programs. Corporations have failed to deliver on some of their commitments. Those that have delivered have made their contributions to big, establishment charities, rather than the grass-roots ones that most help needy kids.

Powell’s history, in short, does not suggest that he would have made a great president. That job requires an impatient leader who likes to slice through red tape, not create it, and who wants to shake up the government, not pacify it. But we have missed a superb vice president, someone who would complain mildly in private but follow the president’s orders in public, someone who would protect the federal bureaucracy while making it slightly more efficient, someone who wouldn’t take risks, someone who would stay out of trouble. Someone a lot like Al Gore.