Colin Powell was on "Larry King Live" last week — the day after Paris Hilton — and was talking about his life and politics in Washington.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it's clear he intends to "play" in the 2008 Presidential election: If not actually on the ticket (as, for example, a vice presidential candidate with Fred Thompson) certainly as a kingmaker or breaker with his endorsement, which he will use as leverage for the job of his choice, just as he did with the Bush administration.
However, also obvious from his performance on Mr. King's show was his need to separate himself from the Bush administration's Iraq policies. He used various techniques to do so, including a self-serving testimonial from his former aide at the State Department.
You can't have been around Washington since the early 1980s and not be in awe of Mr. Powell: Regardless what you might think of him or his politics (his politics are typically unclear until he learns what the consensus is) he is the ultimate survivor in the piranha tank of Washington politics.
I remember him as a typically ubiquitous military assistant for Caspar Weinberger. He parlayed that into a string of senior policy jobs: chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security adviser and secretary of state. He was talked about as a Presidential candidate in 1996 and declined — and this tape was played, as were other Powell career highlights, on the King show.
But he is clearly rethinking his legacy and we can expect to see a lot more of him in the months to come: His role model is probably Dwight Eisenhower who, while far less involved in Washington politics than Mr. Powell has been, was in effect "drafted" by public acclaim to run for president in 1952. Mr. Powell probably sees that as the ultimate fulfillment of his ambitions; remember, we're talking about a guy whose likeness was as popular as the "GI Joe" action figure.
Aside from Mr. Powell — who is in the "way too slick" category — almost nothing is as politically swarmy as a retired general whoring for a "big job" in the next administration. After all, a guy who spends a career in the military and retires as a general has become very good at operating in a bureaucracy — especially the self-promotion part of it.
But am I being unfair? After all, these can be enormously capable people with lots of valuable experience, and — as most of us assume — they must know what they are talking about.
Maybe it's a matter of degree: Take the retired general who is hired as an expert by one of the TV networks or cable shows. We've all seen them, standing before a map with a pointer, or talking about the capabilities of various military systems or the "order of battle." Some of the more thoughtful retired general TV experts are pretty good. The best by far is David Grange.
Is Gen. Grange looking for work? Maybe, but the work he's looking for is more of the kind he's doing now, and probably not as a future secretary of state.
At the other extreme is the general who leaves no doubt about what he's after: He wants to be president, vice president or at least secretary of state or defense or national security adviser.
My current favorite here is the "Arkansas boy" Wes Clark, who actually ran for president last time, who is running again, and who would dearly love to be Hillary's vice president. While he always starts out his TV "military analysis" with some thin military expertise, he can't stay with it very long and quickly gets to his weak suite: purely political commentary, usually a simpering hand wringing about the Bush administration.
Barry McCafferty, or the "drug general" as I call him, is another one. While only a little less obnoxious than Gen. Clark, he is remembered around town as the guy who took any important-sounding job offered him by the Clinton administration and who has lusted for more power ever since. But he's stuck with the Democrats: Remember, it was Bill Clinton, who "loathed the military," but that didn't bother Gen. McCafferty a bit and he is clearly on the make for higher office in the next Democratic administration.
Others in more recent history were Adm. Bill Crowe, who blessed Bill Clinton with a desperately needed military endorsement in 1992 and was rewarded by being appointed as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Al Haig crossed the political line for Richard Nixon and became his chief of staff (during the Watergate purge) then later was Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, finally running for president in 1988. Also along the way was the late James Stockdale, who was Ross Perot's vice-presidential running mate, and Cutis LeMay who ran with George Wallace in 1968 — clearly fringe players.
So, what I'm complaining about here is nothing new in American politics, however, there is a huge qualitative difference (and in sophistication) between the likes of Gens. Clark and McCafferty and their most probable career archetype, the ever successful Colin Powell.
Though Gens. Clark and MacCafferty obviously are not nearly in the same league as Colin Powell, I think most of us would prefer the Powell model for retired generals with political ambitions. In short, we wish the Arkansas boy and the drug general would stick to military commentary on cable TV.
Daniel Gallington is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.