He came. He signed. He did Leno.
Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America's favorite non-candidate, brought his book-signing juggernaut to Southern California on Tuesday, sweeping from Orange County to Century City with a pen in his hand, the press in his wake and thousands of admirers in his face.
"Run! Run! We hope you run!" fans shouted by the hundreds as the beaming Powell strode down the sidewalk and through the glass doors of Brentano's Bookstore in Century City. But despite the continued buzz over whether Powell might run for President, and if so, how, and with whom, and under what party affiliation, he remained coyly focused on his mission--the peddling of "My American Journey," his memoirs.
"If I wanted to win in politics," he said at an impromptu news conference before one signing, "it would be for the purpose of trying to present a clear vision to the American public. . . ." But, he quickly added, "I'm still some distance" from making a decision.
Powell's book, with 1.25 million copies in print, has become a runaway bestseller since its Sept. 15 release. Random House officials say the autobiography of the mastermind of Operation Desert Storm is the fastest-selling nonfiction book in the publisher's history.
Even more remarkable has been the chart-topping popularity of Powell himself, who, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, would beat President Clinton in California if he were to run as the Republican presidential nominee.
In Orange County, where he signed books at the Price Club/Costco warehouse in Fountain Valley, the line of fans began forming at 2:45 a.m. Sitting in front of a stack of discount TV sets, he signed 2,700 books in 3 1/2 hours. Even then, said store spokeswoman Linda Prock, 1,000 fans had to be turned away.
In Century City, the line of the faithful snaked for blocks. Some fans had been camped there overnight. Terry Jones, a UCLA film school student, wanted to ask him to appear in her upcoming movie about the Tuskegee, Ala., airmen. The Rev. W. H. Stevens of North Hollywood wanted to thank him for winning the Gulf War. Eight-year-old Micah Floyd of West Covina wanted to salute him the way he'd been taught in the Cub Scouts; Micah's mother, Bobbie Floyd, wanted her son "to see the positive side of being a black man."
Mary Jane Albright of Palos Verdes Estates sat in line all day doing needlepoint. Her objective, she said, was to get her husband an autographed Powell autobiography to match the Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf memoir she had stood in line for all day at a Pasadena bookstore. Vivien Vanderlee of Long Beach said she had simply been moved by the book, "and the way he came up from an immigrant family, just like me."
Kelly Goodman, events coordinator for Brentano's, said the crowd--estimated at more than 3,000--was about six times as big as the turnout for House Speaker Newt Gingrich last month and half-again as big as the draw for comedian Jerry Seinfeld two years ago. Random House officials said that, not counting the books signed Tuesday, the author had scrawled his efficient "C. L. Powell," on more than 16,000 books.
Powell's agenda Tuesday was busy. William Tecumseh Sherman (another famous non-candidate) couldn't have cut a cleaner swath. Morning, which began at 0730 hours military time, featured appearances on the KTLA-TV morning news and the Michael Jackson show on KABC radio ("Please. Call me Colin," he told his effusive host).
At 1200 hours, he was at the Price Club, where frazzled store officials tried to placate the crowd with free pizza. Afternoon featured a taping of the "Tonight Show," where host Jay Leno suggested a number of potential slogans for his potential candidacy, ranging from "Gen. Powell or Gen. Confusion, the choice is yours," to "I look better in a tank than Dukakis."
And as dusk arrived, Powell pulled into Century City to sign more books, first come, first served. A few celebrities tried to cut in line, and a few succeeded. "General Hospital" soap star Joseph C. Phillips, who wanted a signed copy for his father-in-law, was pulled into the front of the line by a few adoring fans. Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs got a private audience with Powell at the back of the store before the rabble got in.
Events coordinator Goodman said former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner had called in asking if he would have to stand in line with everyone else to get an autograph. "Absolutely," he was told.
Officially, of course, Powell is not a candidate. Officially, he is merely the author of a hot memoir who is doing a 25-city book tour. Less officially, however, Powell has become in recent weeks the most speculated-upon non-candidate in the race. His every move, it seems, has fueled the notion that he might run for President.
And unlike Gen. Sherman--who quashed Civil War-era oddsmaking with the vow, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected"--Powell keeps saying stuff like, "What I am going to have to do is think through what I want to do with my life," and--to Jackson--"I'm young and vigorous and want to do something that serves the nation. I don't want to just go vegetate."
His fans are less circumspect.
"We need principled leadership," said David Baker of West Los Angeles, as he stood in line with a copy of Powell's book in each hand. "When I get up there, I'm just gonna say it to him straight: 'Gen. Powell, will you please run for President?' "
Times staff writers Bob Sipchen in Los Angeles and Susan Marquez Owen in Orange County contributed to this story.