Ballot Box

The Man Who Won’t Be Used

PHILADELPHIA–I want to return to the address Colin Powell delivered last night, not only because it was the only trenchant piece of oratory heard so far, but also because it cut to the heart of the question raised by this Republican convention. In language that was at times strikingly blunt, Gen. Powell asked his fellow Republicans whether they are entirely serious in the concern for minorities they have put on display in Philadelphia. While serving as the star of last night’s minority extravaganza, Powell also managed to call its bluff.

“The party must follow Gov. Bush’s lead and reach out to minority communities and particularly the African-American community–and not just during an election-year campaign,” Powell told the delegates. “It must be a sustained effort. It must be every day. It must be for real.” What was perhaps most remarkable about this speech was that it did not at all give Republicans the benefit of the doubt about their racial intentions. Indeed, Powell offered strong support for a posture of skepticism.

With the crispness and clarity that are the hallmarks of his delivery, Powell began by pointing out something that white Republicans often do not admit: that racism and the legacy of racism still hobbles African-Americans. “The issue of race still casts a shadow over our society, despite the impressive progress we have made over the last 40 years,” he noted. Powell decried the way the country fails to provide a basic education or meaningful economic opportunities for young black men, choosing to deal with them instead through the criminal-justice system. “Time to stop building jails,” he declared. 

As an alternative, Powell outlined a series of social policies that sounded much closer to Al Gore’s proposals for government activism than to Bush’s exhortation of private and religious voluntarism. “We must be willing to spend more to repair our schools and to pay our teachers better,” he said, implying support for a Clinton-Gore position that Bush specifically opposes. (Powell also praised experimentation with vouchers, a notion that Gore vigorously opposes and that even Bush doesn’t explicitly advocate.) The general also said that the federal government should ensure that every child has health-care coverage, another position that is part of the Democratic platform but not the Republican one.

Finally, Powell reiterated his oft-stated support for affirmative action. In an extraordinary passage that essentially charged many Republicans with subtle racism, he said that conservatives should understand why blacks are cynical about them. The cynicism is created, he said, “when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education, but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests.”

While expressing skepticism about the bona fides of some in the GOP who would claim the mantle of Lincoln, Powell credited Bush himself with good faith. “He knows it will not be handed over, that it will have to be earned,” Powell said. But I think the import of the speech was a challenge to Bush as well as to the Republican Party as a whole. If Bush is serious about helping the underprivileged, Powell suggests, he will have to offer more than cheerleading for faith-based programs and targeted tax breaks. As president, Bush can help minorities in a substantial way only by engaging with national policy on education, housing, and health care–areas in which Republicans in recent years have been interested mainly in rolling back the federal role. The governor may have gotten to the point of discarding the familiar conservative view that Washington should do less. The general, a man who won’t be used, awaits his vision of how it can do more.