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If Colin Powell is not Running for President yet, he certainly is getting good practice. Starting this Friday, 800,000 copies of his much anticipated autobiography, My American Journey, will start landing in bookstores. Meanwhile, Powell embarks on a 23-city, 20-day publicity blitz, including TV interviews with Barbara Walters, Larry King, Jay Leno and Tom Brokaw, that promises to be the D-day of author tours. Then, as he tells TIME in this week's interview, his first to appear since his retirement in 1993, "I'll sit down with my family and those people who provide me with advice and counsel and some very dear friends who care about me, and make a decision as to what to do.''

By that time, millions of Americans will not only have seen and heard Powell out of uniform for the first time but will also have had the chance to read the story of his life, which is excerpted on the following pages. No other candidate can hope to match Powell's inspiring tale, "the story,'' as he puts it, "of a black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx and somehow rose to become the National Security Adviser to the President of the United States and then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.'' Colin Powell embodies the American Dream; in this age of the anti-politician, Colin Powell has good reason to hope he could be the American Dream candidate.

Powell, 58, is keeping his options open, and his views on the issues reflect that: as a self-described "fiscal conservative with a social conscience,'' he says little that will alienate most voters. Like Bill Bradley, the Democrat from New Jersey who announced last month that he would not seek a fourth Senate term, Powell expresses his disenchantment with both parties. Like Bradley, Powell suggests that now may be the time for a third party to emerge to represent what he calls the "sensible center of the American political spectrum.'' Powell reveals that he has never registered as a Republican or a Democrat and discloses having voted for J.F.K. in 1960, L.B.J. in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1976, and Ronald Reagan and George Bush thereafter.

The book's considerable strength lies not so much in what Powell has to say about politics or his service in Washington as in what he says about the forces that shaped his character and thinking: his parents, his early attraction to a military career, his brushes with racism in the South, his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Powell, who wrote the book with historian- biographer Joseph E. Persico, retains a serious but not pompous tone, with frequent flashes of self-deprecating wit. A man fond of maxims, Powell is always looking to learn from mistakes as well as successes, and he frames much of his story that way. Under the glass top of his desk at the Pentagon, Powell kept a pulpit's worth of sayings: Get mad, then get over it. Share credit. It can be done!

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