Colin Powell has the gift of presence. When he walks into a room, people sit up, straighten their ties, hold their breath in anticipation. And he dazzles them with his effortless command. The moment he set foot in the State Department last January, he was met with rapturous applause. When he paid a call in Beijing three months after a U.S. spy plane was forced to land on Hainan island, he coaxed a joke out of somber President Jiang Zemin and left the leadership beaming that he "respected" China. They returned the compliment with a long-awaited $2 billion order for Boeing 737s. When Powell met George W. Bush in 1997 at a Texas charity fund raiser, the new Governor stepped forward and saluted: "General, Texas is reporting for duty."
So it comes as one of the biggest surprises in the emerging Bush II era that Colin Powell, the man many thought would walk into the presidency himself a few years ago, is leaving such shallow footprints. By the cruel calculus of Washington, you are only as powerful as people think you are. Powell's megastar wattage looks curiously dimmed, as if someone has turned his light way down. People who like the Administration's foreign policy credit it to Bush, not Powell. People who don't, wonder where he is. Leaders abroad are not certain he is the definitive voice of America. A former Secretary of State says Powell seems absent from the big issues of the day. Another former top diplomat, when asked to provide an adjective for the phrase "Colin Powell is a 'blank' Secretary of State," says, "Yes, he is." A senior official in the Bush Administration who has worked with Powell for three Presidents in three agencies registers much the same reaction: "I've been struck by how not struck I am by him." A friendly foreign official notes, "It's not useful to sit as silent partner when you have his stature." What people noticed most at the U.N. Conference on Racism that opened last week in Durban, South Africa, was Powell's absence.
On Capitol Hill, the impression of Powell's deflation has set tongues wagging. "He's been largely invisible," says a top Democratic Senate aide. At the White House, officials don't even pretend Powell is Bush's primary foreign policy person. "The President has a talented group of advisers," says a senior official, as if the general-hero brought no special luster. "Powell is one of them."
Of course, in any bureaucracy--any democracy--there are competing ideas and different ways of doing things. That's healthy. It's not the end of the world if one of Washington's players is taken down a notch or two. But Powell and the office he holds are different. His stellar career, inspiring personal history and reputation for integrity have endowed him with a unique moral stature. Americans--and the rest of the world--want to see him use that to great ends. From the start, his presence at Bush's side conferred an extra legitimacy on an untried President, supplied experience to temper gut instinct. Powell's rich store of respect and goodwill lent confidence to allies overseas that the essentials of policy in the world's superpower would remain stable--or if they did change, that a reassuring interlocutor would be leading the process and explaining its wisdom.