Powell Wows the Help, but Not All Republicans Are Cheering

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Secretary of State Colin Powell greets State Department staffers

Secretary of State Colin Powell came into his job with sky-high public approval ratings and dazzling people skills, and both were on display during his department debut this week. His arrival for at 8:30 a.m. Monday for his first day on the job prompted a rousing celebration, as hundreds of cheering staffers crammed into the lobby area to welcome the new boss. Thursday, he got a standing ovation at a "town meeting" for employees beamed to embassies around the world. African-American employees seemed especially struck. One told Powell simply, "I would just like to thank you for stepping up to the plate."

'Give me push-ups'

In a half-hour speech (delivered without notes) that was by turns funny, sincere, self-deprecating and boosterish, Powell tried to assure the pin-striped set that his military experience would help in an agency whose morale has plunged in recent years. "My background leads me to believe that the commanders in the field are always right," he said, to laughter and applause. Addressing the overseas audience, he added, "You're right, and those of us back here at C Street are generally wrong." He said the staff would be treated like professionals and held to high standards. If you perform, he said, "we'll get along fine. If you don't, you're going to give me push-ups."

Welcome, you've got Powell

He sprinkled his talk with stories about meeting with Gorbachev, speaking before Midas muffler franchisees and watching the Discovery Channel. A former director of AOL, Powell gave assurances that America's technology-challenged diplomacy would get an upgrade. "I live on the Internet," he said, promising to enlist the aid of some of "my buddies" from the outside world: Steve Case, Andy Grove and Michael Dell. Where Madeleine Albright was known to send big advance teams and require special foods and water when she traveled the world, Powell said, "I'm an easy visitor. I've got no food requirements, I like Holiday Inns." And where the organizational culture frowns on people who stop at quitting time, Powell declared he is not working weekends and said, "Anyone who is logging hours to impress me is wasting their time. If I call you at 7:30 p.m. and you're not there, I'll get you at home." Said one foreign service officer later, "He sure pushed all the right buttons."

GOP conservatives unimpressed

Powell's performance was great theater and a much-needed boost to the collective spirit of his department. But running U.S. foreign policy — and dealing with the politics of Washington — is not the same as speaking on the rubber chicken circuit (where Powell earned up to $100,000 per speech). Already conservative Republicans, including some influential staffers on Capitol Hill, are complaining that Powell's choices for the top jobs are not sufficiently ideological. (He has been trying to recruit good managers.) Frank Gaffney, a hard-line GOP foreign policy maven, has lost no time writing an op-ed piece attacking the administration's China policy.

How important is Africa?

Powell's own commitments are also coming under scrutiny. He was on record several years ago as favoring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Republican Senate rejected in 1999 and Bush opposed in his campaign. During his confirmation testimony, Powell toed the party line. He also declared that Africa would be one of his, and the administration's, top priorities. Yet during his first week in office President Bush took a step that critics call anti-African: reimposing the funding ban for overseas family-planning agencies that are linked to abortion services (many of those agencies provide counseling and care for African AIDS victims). Powell's input on the decision isn't known. No doubt the general's charisma and star power will give him a comfortable honeymoon, so he can avoid such questions for a while. But the Washington press has a way of building you up so it can knock you down. As his former colleagues at the Pentagon say, he'd better prepare for incoming.