Zealous crowds of strangers around the country, looking to Colin L. Powell for America's political salvation, are making his ears ring and ego swell with chants of "Run, Colin, Run."
But beneath the din, those closest to the retired general are whispering, "Don't."
J. Bruce Llewellyn, Powell's cousin and one of the nation's wealthiest African Americans, has warned him to "stay the hell away" from elective politics. Llewellyn has told Powell there are many ways to serve the nation without suffering the indignities of running for office.
Another Powell confidant, former Defense Department official Richard L. Armitage, has cautioned his friend that a presidential campaign would mean ceaseless attacks on his character and an end to the privacy he now enjoys.
Others close to Powell--notably his wife, Alma--have expressed fear for his life if he attempts to become the nation's first black President.
Powell, 58, has a well-deserved reputation for keeping his own counsel until the last possible moment. But when he does make the fateful decision whether to run for President, he will do it only after intense deliberations with a small group of these close and trusted friends, the Powell "canteen Cabinet."
In addition to his wife, Armitage and Llewellyn, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs consults closely with Republican consultant Kenneth M. Duberstein. The two cemented their relationship when they essentially ran much of the government while Duberstein served as White House chief of staff and Powell was national security adviser in the waning days of the Ronald Reagan Administration.
These good friends believe that ultimately the most important decision of Powell's life will be made by Powell alone.
"Powell really does make his own decisions, and those of us he does talk to are pretty protective of his privacy," said Armitage, 50, who served as a senior official in the Pentagon and State Department in the Reagan and George Bush administrations. "It's wrong to call us advisers or aides; we're just friends who can share things without them becoming public.
"Because of that, on a personal basis, I hope he doesn't run, because it would have an enormous impact on his family and mean an end to his privacy," added Armitage, who speaks with Powell virtually daily--sometimes several times a day.
At the same time, Armitage believes that a Powell presidency would be vastly preferable to a second term for President Clinton or a victory by a Republican beholden to what he sees as reactionary elements of the party. But those same conservative forces in the GOP could pose a barrier to Powell's entry into the race, said Armitage.
"He would have a very difficult time today overcoming Republican proclivities," he said. "Some in the party clearly would rather be right than win. The Republican Party is going to have to take a real look at themselves."
Llewellyn agreed. He said an African American is not likely to find a warm welcome in today's GOP.
"At this point in time, the Republican Party does not stand for principles that any minority can accept," said Llewellyn, 68, a New York businessman who owns one of the nation's largest Coca-Cola bottling plants.
"People say that Powell can make the Republicans change their ways, bring a whole new group of people into the party. I don't see that," Llewellyn said.
When Armitage warns of the character assassination Powell might face, it is a subject he knows something about, having been the target of fierce attacks by political maverick Ross Perot in disputes over government efforts to account for missing GIs in Vietnam.
Armitage has also been accused by a leftist group in Washington called the Christic Institute of being a player in a global conspiracy theory involving drug-running, hit squads and CIA dirty tricks. A federal judge found the charges to be baseless.
In his best-selling autobiography "My American Journey," Powell refers to the muscular Armitage, a veteran of four tours in Vietnam, as "my brother and my bodyguard."
Duberstein, 51, a Republican who runs a Washington political consulting firm bearing his name declined to comment on his relationship with Powell. But he is known to be in constant contact with him on a broad range of topics. They spoke at length before Powell's recent interview with Barbara Walters of ABC-TV and discussed Powell's answers to questions about his views on abortion, school prayer, gun control and affirmative action.
Turns to Others
Duberstein has told associates that it would be folly for Powell to run for President as an independent because of the financial and organizational difficulties that would entail. But he believes Powell would have a decent shot at winning the GOP nomination.
Powell turns to many others for counsel on occasion--from his early mentor Caspar W. Weinberger to Vernon E. Jordan Jr., a Washington lawyer and powerbroker who headed the Clinton transition team following the 1992 election.
Weinberger first met Powell when the future chairman of the Joint Chiefs was a young officer serving as a White House Fellow in the Richard Nixon Administration. Weinberger, who aided Powell's career at a number of critical points, has advised him against an independent candidacy.
"I have talked with him many times, and I regard those conversations as confidential," said Weinberger, who tapped Powell to be his military aide when he was secretary of defense under Reagan. "But I can say that I have counseled strongly against any kind of independent race. I think it would be a mistake, a futile enterprise."
Many of those who consult regularly with Powell are close-mouthed about their contacts. But it is known that he speaks often with Jordan, a senior Democratic Party figure and one of the nation's most respected African American leaders.
Jordan told Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard University professor and leading black intellectual, that he "will be there" for Powell whatever he decides to do, although he apparently meant it in a personal and not necessarily a political sense.
Some of Powell's advice comes from others through Armitage, thus insulating Powell from directly consulting people who might then be identified as his "advisers."
David Hale, the chief economist at Kemper Financial Services in Chicago, is an example of these secondhand advice-givers. Armitage said that Powell has been impressed and influenced by Hale's narrowly circulated economic analyses.
Hale's views are internationalist and free-trade oriented; he believes in low tax rates and advocates changes in the structure of the U.S. economy to improve the nation's technology and competitiveness in the post-Cold War era.
But Hale said he also believes the nation needs a sturdy social safety net to protect workers left behind in the global economy.
Powell describes himself as a "fiscal conservative with a social conscience"--a close parallel to Hale's views.
"Powell's advantage is that he's not tied down now with the baggage of the other candidates, like [Patrick J.] Buchanan and [Senate Majority Leader Bob] Dole, who are flirting with protectionism," said Hale, who provided economic advice to both Clinton and Bush in 1992. "This guy is kind of born free."
Another adviser-once-removed is former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, a Democrat who is now a professor at the University of Denver and an expert on health care.
Stephen Ambrose, a prominent historian who is a leader of the draft-Powell movement, has asked Lamm to prepare a briefing paper on health policy--in case Powell should ask for it.
Powell turns for occasional advice and counsel to Bush and former Defense Secretary and National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci.
But Powell has only a distant relationship with former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney--with whom he worked closely in the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War and other military operations during the Bush presidency.
Associates said Powell respects Cheney's intellect, but there is none of the affection Powell feels for Reagan, Bush, Weinberger and other former civilian superiors.
Much closer to Powell are former Pentagon associates Marybel Batjer and retired Army Col. Bill Smullen. Powell met Batjer through Weinberger, whom she followed to the Pentagon in the early 1980s from Bechtel Corp.; she has remained an aide and friend to Powell for the past 15 years.
Smullen served as Powell's spokesman when the general was chairman of the Joint Chiefs and continues in that role today. Smullen is the custodian of Powell's personal and professional history.
Another good friend is Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder and a former Defense Department official and U.S. ambassador to Austria in the mid-1980s.
Powell is a regular guest at Lauder's weekend estate on Long Island, not far from Llewellyn's place. Lauder has pledged to raise millions of dollars for a Powell presidential campaign from his wealthy associates in industry and on Wall Street.
Powell last summer told his rich friend not to get carried away. "I'm not running for President," he told Lauder. "I'm just selling books."
But that was about a million copies ago.