Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell brought his 25-city book promotion campaign to the heart of Orange County on Tuesday, attracting 3,000 people who began lining up in the pre-dawn darkness for the chance to meet the man some think could be the next President.
The first autograph-seekers showed up at 2:45 a.m. at the Price Costco discount store in Fountain Valley. Powell held an impromptu news conference shortly after his arrival about noon, and then signed 2,700 books for 3 1/2 hours--1 1/2 hours longer than scheduled.
A thousand people were still in line and had to be turned away when the Powell entourage finally left the store, said store spokeswoman Linda Prock. She said that the first 150 were given previously autographed mementos to ease their disappointment.
"He was very gracious. He stayed to sign as many as he could," said Prock.
Sounding more like a seasoned politician than a first-time author, Powell touched on a variety of issues in remarks to the press, including Ross Perot's bid to create a third national party, TV violence and cuts to Medicare.
Powell said before Perot made his Monday night announcement about creating a new Independence Party (it will be called the Reform Party in California), the Texas billionaire called him over the weekend to discuss the initiative. Powell carefully avoided saying that he would run for the presidency, but noted that Perot's efforts to launch another national political party would make a bid by a third candidate more plausible.
"This seems to give a little more possibility to the independent route," Powell said. "But it's premature. This is an initiative that is only 18 hours old. We need to see where it all leads."
On Monday, Perot announced that he would spearhead a drive to form a new party to challenge Republicans and Democrats next year. Although he did not endorse a candidate, he indicated an interest in Powell, describing the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a "world-class" contender.
Like Perot, Powell said he believes many Americans are dissatisfied with the existing two-party system.
"I think Mr. Perot is trying to tap into that, to see if there is enough support for a third party--not just as an idea, but as an actual third party. We should all watch with interest as he begins that effort."
"This is a new element in the American political scene," Powell said. "We haven't had a new party of this type created in 100, close to 150 years."
Powell called the huge turnout for him at Price Costco "flattering," and said he would take such shows of support into account when he decides whether to run. Long lines have greeted him at every stop on his tour.
Most of the crowd waited in a parking lot near the store's rear entrance. The long line snaked into the store and up to a platform where Powell sat with pen in hand against a backdrop of stacked Magnavox and Sony TV boxes.
"I shook his hand and told him he was an inspiration to me and to a lot of people," said Chris Guyton, 26, of Hawthorne, as he clutched his copy of Powell's book to his chest. "He said he appreciated that. I'm very excited about shaking his hand. It was an emotional feeling just being in the presence of the man."
Many of those who waited for autographs on their hard-bound copies of his memoir, "My American Journey," said they came because they believe Powell may be the next President.
"To me, he is a hero in a number of ways--both militarily and personally," said Richard Cole Jr., 40, of Cypress, a quadriplegic who waited in his wheelchair for more than two hours to see Powell. "I admire him because of the ground that he has broken, and the advances he has made despite his parents being immigrants," said Cole.
In his 643-page autobiography, Powell recalls his childhood in the South Bronx as the son of Jamaican immigrants and traces his rise to the nation's top military post.
Powell's book, with 1.25 million copies in print, became a runaway best seller less than a week after its release Sept. 15 and is the fastest-selling book in Random House's history.
Donna Corn and her husband, Christopher, were the first in line at 2:45 a.m. and the first to see Powell. Corn said that she and her husband, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, are attracted to Powell because he projects strong leadership qualities.
"I hope he'll run," she said. "We're ready to support him."
After his marathon book signing in Fountain Valley, Powell went to Brentano's Bookstore in Century City, where the line of the faithful snaked for blocks. Some fans had been camped there overnight. Kelly Goodman, events coordinator for Brentano's, said the crowd--estimated at 3,000-plus--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, Powell had scrawled his efficient "C.L. Powell," on more than 16,000 books.
A few celebrities tried to cut in line, and a few succeeded. Soap opera star Joseph C. Phillips of "General Hospital," 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.
Earlier in the day, before signing any autographs, Powell talked about his views on the problems that beset America. One of his chief villains: daytime TV that brings sleaze, violence and stereotyping of minorities into the home and presents the absolute worst role models for young blacks, he said.
Powell said parents and the entertainment industry need to share responsibility for protecting children from inappropriate media images.
"We should be asking ourselves as a society why we seem to need this type of sexual voyeurism and stereotyping to entertain us in the afternoon," Powell said.
Powell also said that Medicare is one of the budgetary issues that needs to be considered for cuts in order to reduce the country's deficit.
"We're having a major national debate on our priorities and, in this debate, everything has to be looked at," Powell said. "If we want to put our nation on a sound footing and create jobs for the underclass and middle class, we have to look at where we're spending our money."
Powell also commented on recent news reports that he had taken part in a 1968 cover-up of the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American troops. Powell said he was not in Vietnam at the time of the massacre, and that he learned of it only months later, in the fall of 1969.
Asked by a reporter if he thought his being African American would help or hurt his candidacy, Powell said unfortunately his race could do either, depending on the voter. He said that in either case, he is proud of his heritage.
"My sense is that we should be very proud of ourselves and thank heaven we have reached a point in the development of our national life where an African American can be seriously considered for the highest office in the land and his color would not necessarily be a barrier."