In Powell, Bush Has a Leadoff Hit

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Colin Powell will head up George W. Bush's foreign policy team

President-elect George W. Bush's first nomination for his nascent Cabinet was a confirmation on Saturday of the worst-kept secret in Washington: Gen. Colin L. Powell, (Ret.), for secretary of state. Would for him that every step of this fast tiptoe through the transition minefield could be this sure.

"The face and voice of American diplomacy," Bush announced a little after 12:30 p.m. Saturday after unspooling Powell's résumée with evident satisfaction, "is an American hero, an American example, and a great American story. It's a great day when a son of the South Bronx succeeds to the office first held by Thomas Jefferson."

The appointment, of course, has been presumptive since the GOP convention, and Powell has been hovering at Bush's shoulder like a guardian angel for as long as Bush has been able to drop the hint. Powell is a minority Republican who talks like a Democrat, a national amalgam, a military man who could have been a unifying Ike but didn't like politics enough to run. He's a perfect combination of the the elder Bush's Gulf War and the younger's "compassionate conservatism," and he's just prickly enough with his adopted party to be believable.

And after Bush's lavish introduction — the next president does owe us a little exposure, now that he's won, and Bush made sure his part was big enough to pace the newscasts — a nattily suited Powell strode to the mike and pinned on the medal.

"I think these are promising times, times of great opportunity but times also of challenge and danger," Powell said. "We are up to the task." He vowed to tone up the military, named market economics as the guts of democracy abroad, and promised to put a little dignified reserve into America's use of both military and diplomatic force. He left the first and last steps of Middle East peace to the parties involved, shot a little message to Israel about being "a friend to all sides" and respecting Palestinian "aspirations," and told reporters he'll make Iraq sanctions work again.

You want confidence? "Saddam Hussein is sitting on a failed regime that is not going to be around in a few years time." Moderation? China and Russia aren't rivals — they're "nations that are seeking their way" to capitalist democracy. North Korea or Iraq are merely "nations poorly led." (Where was this guy when they renamed "rogue states"?) He even tossed in an eerie parallel to the current domestic America, about the Cold War ending "the old world map of a red side and a blue side. The new map is a mosaic."

Powell's a mosaic too. The sure-thing nomination was performed for the cameras not at the ranch or the Austin office, but in the gymnasium at Crawford Elementary School. Because Colin Powell isn't just a black decorated war hero with universal appeal and impeccable credentials, he's a black decorated war hero with universal appeal and impeccable credentials who will leave no child behind.

Powell spent the latter half of his speech plugging his America's Promise foundation, and insisted that being secretary of state of the most powerful nation on earth wouldn't cut into his charity work. He'll "encourage" other Cabinet members to follow his example. They'll be hiding from him by March, but for now this guy might as well have a halo, ascending to the nation's top foreign policy job in a setting where kids get their first taste of ambition.

Powell noted that reports about his nomination would say "Colin Powell, first African-American to ever hold the position of secretary of state. And I'm glad they will say that, and I want it repeated." And then he thanked Bush for sparing him another photo-op at the ranch.

"I'm from the South Bronx," Powell said, "and I don't care what you say, those cows look dangerous."

Not Powell. Sunday, Bush is due to tap Condoleezza Rice for NSC adviser and name most of his White House staff, and by the time he heads to Washington on Monday he'll have only drawn raves for surprising no one at all with his picks so far. The final piece of the foreign policy puzzle: defense secretary, for which the top two names are Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge and former senator Dan Coats. It's already sparked the first "reasonable men can disagree" fight of the Bush administration, with Cheney pulling for Coats and Powell urging Ridge, the pro-choicer who might double as Bush's first dare to the religious right.

But that's for a little later in the game. For now, Bush is a former baseball owner who knows how helpful it is to lead off with a home run.