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Colin Powell, mobilizer
Polls say he's the favorite of Republicans for the White House in 2000 and would beat Al Gore, the Democrats' toughest contender, 49% to 35%. In Washington that kind of potential power always means outsize influence, and Colin Powell has it in abundance. It seems only to enhance his stature that the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff leads a fairly private life and maintains a skillful neutrality about someday seeking the highest office to which mere politicians are hormonally drawn.
He has been wrestling in retirement with how to turn his supercelebrity into something substantial, and has rejected offers to run big companies and foundations. Instead he has become general chairman of the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, a kind of Points of Light program on steroids. It aims to boost the voluntary help Americans, especially corporations, donate to combatting poverty and other social ills, particularly those affecting children. Later this month he kicks off its big opening ceremony in Philadelphia, in the company of all the living Presidents (save for Ronald Reagan, who will be represented by his wife Nancy).
The goal is concrete actions that will measurably help at least 2 million people by the end of the century, such as getting companies to supply money or people for community programs. Already, Honeywell has promised to recruit 4,000 volunteers to build low-income housing and an additional 8,000 employees to mentor at-risk kids from ages 10 to 18; Pfizer will donate $5 million in medicine to poor children and provide access to health care. When a firm signs up, "we're going to call its program a 'promise,' " says Powell. "That's a word with emotional tug not like 'commitment,' which is something bureaucratic."
When even Bill Clinton is saying the era of Big Government is over and is pushing a complex partnership among different levels of government and private enterprise to fix the schools and find jobs for welfare recipients, it's a perfect moment for Powell, 60, to lend his self-made reputation to making volunteerism cool. He doesn't have to develop elaborate social policy either, at which he showed no great skill in his near run for the presidency, just inveigle CEOs and community groups to cough up more programs, cheer good results and keep count. He says simply, "I have arrived at the point in my life where I am trying to use what I have been given by my nation to help the nation." Powell is not humble, but he is unaffected, wholly comfortable in his own skin. "I try to be the same person I was yesterday," he says. That may be the most enduring source of his popular appeal and one reason average Americans won't cynically view the summit as just a launching pad for a presidential run three years hence.