Wednesday, November 9, 1988. Powell, then a three-star general and the national security adviser to President Reagan, stepped briskly along one of the narrow, carpeted hallways in the West Wing of the White House. He was heading toward his spacious corner office, perhaps the second-most prestigious in the White House, and a nerve center formerly inhabited by the likes of Henry Kissinger.
It was about 4 p.m. Vice President George Bush was in the hall outside his own small West Wing office. The day before, Bush had been elected President. A Rose Garden ceremony welcoming him back to the White House as President-elect had just ended and he was in the corridors saying hello and shaking hands, all jittery enthusiasm. He spotted Powell.
"Come on in here," Bush said. "I want to talk. Let's talk."
Powell said Bush must be busy.
"Tell me what's going on," Bush insisted, drawing Powell into the vice presidential office. By both title and temperament, Powell was information central on world events, often the first within the upper ranks of the White House to know the latest, whether it was a developing crisis or the freshest high-grade foreign affairs gossip.
Congratulating Bush, Powell flashed a broad, confident smile.
The Bush administration-to-be was already taking shape. That morning in Houston, Bush had announced his first cabinet appointment, naming his campaign manager and old Texas friend Jim Baker Secretary of State. Baker was seen as the Bush insider to watch.
Bush asked about Powell. What were his plans? Where might he fit?
"Mr. Vice President," Powell said, "you have got a lot more on your hands and on your mind than me."
Bush had three specific suggestions. Would Powell like to stay on as national security adviser for, say, six months, while he figured out what he wanted to do next? Or would he like a different, permanent position in the Bush administration? Bush suggested Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an assignment he himself had had at about Powell's age. Or how about becoming Baker's number two at the State Department, a key post in foreign affairs? Either of those jobs could be his. Exciting and important times are coming, Bush said.
Powell noted that the Army was his chosen career and that he had the opportunity to stay in. Also, he was considering some offers to leave government to make some money. He was flattered by Bush's offers and would consider them along with everything else. As Bush would understand, he was at an important crossroads. His service as national security adviser gave him many options.
Bush, who had changed jobs more than most, indicated he understood completely.
There was a lot to consider, Powell said, and he would get back to him. Congratulations again.
One thing was clear to Powell. The offer to stay on in his current post for a few months was merely a courtesy. It meant: I don't want you to be my permanent national security adviser.
Realizing he had to make a serious analysis of his prospects, Powell later took out a piece of paper and listed the reasons to stay in government and the reasons to get out.
The only argument favoring departure from public service was money. Money didn't interest him particularly, and the resumes he had been quietly circulating in the business world had drawn only a mild response in any case.
The offers to head the CIA and to be number two at State had to be weighed. It would be a demotion to go from the security adviser's post, coordinating all foreign and defense policy issues, to the number-two slot at State, responsible for managing the bureaucracy. And in most respects, the security adviser was more powerful than the CIA director.
Powell had another problem. He felt uneasy about the man who was about to become President.
Unlike Powell himself, who had been the consummate administration insider, Bush was a stepchild in the Reagan White House. Though more in the loop than most vice presidents, he was nevertheless not a player. Bush and Powell had built no bond of loyalty, and as Powell knew, personal alliances were everything with Bush.
Powell was also troubled by the way the Bush presidential campaign had been run. The race-baiting Willie Horton television commercial especially bothered him. Horton, a black first-degree murderer, had been given a weekend pass from a Massachusetts prison when Bush's Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, was governor. While on the furlough, Horton stabbed a white man and raped a white woman in Maryland. Did the people around Bush believe that stuff belonged in the campaign?
Powell sought out his good friend Richard L. Armitage, the outgoing assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Armitage, a burly, intense 1967 Naval Academy graduate, was known for the aggressive way he did his job as the head of the Pentagon's own little state department.
From 1983 to 1986, Armitage and Powell, who was then military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, had managed much of the department's business.
Armitage knew that Powell's charm and offhandedness hid his competitiveness and ambition. He agreed that the half-offer to stay on in the national security post was about politeness. Don't go to the State Department as number two, Armitage advised. You should be the Secretary. The CIA is not your image, he also told Powell. It is demoralized and rundown.
Let things shake out, Armitage recommended.
Powell had taken care to ensure that he could return to the Army. Before the election, he'd gone to see his friend General Carl Vuono, the Army chief of staff. Vuono, who controlled Army promotions and assignments, was a 1957 West Point graduate who had entered the Army just a year before Powell. A meaty, happy-go-lucky officer with dark Mediterranean eyes, Vuono had known Powell since they'd worked together as junior officers in the Pentagon 17 years earlier. Powell considered Vuono one of his mentors.
Although he wanted Powell back in the Army, Vuono urged him to do what would make him and his wife, Alma, happy. If Powell wanted to come back, there would be a place for him. Vuono intentionally had kept a slot open: promotion to a fourth star to head the Forces Command. This was the nation's strategic reserve of some 1 million land forces--most in the National Guard and Reserves.
While it was not a glamorous assignment, it would make Powell one of the ten commanders-in-chief--CINCs, pronounced "sinks"--of U.S. military forces and warfighting units worldwide. It was an important ticket to punch, and it would put him in line to succeed Vuono as Army chief.
"Carl," Powell said, "if I decide to come, I'll do what you want."
Powell considered himself a soldier first. Beginning in 1958, he had spent his first 14 years as a garden-variety infantry officer, without a West Point ring or any other reason to think he was on a fast track. As a young officer, he wasn't particularly dedicated to the Army. His plan was to stick it out for 20 years so he could retire with a 50 percent pension.
His introduction to the upper reaches of government came in 1972. That year, Lieutenant Colonel Powell was chosen for the prestigious White House Fellows program, which gives young businessmen, lawyers, military officers and other professionals a taste of the federal executive branch for one year. In 1977 he went to the Pentagon as military assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense.
His four years in that job, and then the three with Weinberger, were a chance to see the top military leadership up close. He had a notion that a new, more worldly brand of senior officer could be more useful to the Secretary and the President. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top uniformed echelon, were too insulated from the outside world, not sufficiently able or inclined to assess the political aspects of defense decisions. They also tended to be inept at public relations. Yet politics and public relations were the arenas in which the Secretary lived, where he flourished or failed.
Powell decided he had better stay in the Army. It was home, and the prospect of four stars held a certain mystique.
"I couldn't be happier," Vuono said when he heard the news. "We'll send you to Forces Command."
Powell knew he was in for a different kind of life down in Atlanta, where Forces Command had its headquarters. As security adviser, he'd felt a constant sense of risk. Risk in every word, every recommendation, every choice, every action. President Reagan had delegated an enormous part of his responsibility to his staff. Powell found that if he told Reagan he didn't have to worry about something, the President would soon be happily gazing out the window into the Rose Garden. It was in Powell's hands. Although Powell was on two medications for high blood pressure, he had enjoyed that risky, stressful existence.
He shared his decision with Reagan's chief of staff, Kenneth Duberstein, a street-smart pol from Brooklyn. Powell said he was going to be a soldier again. It was his life. "Some day I'd like to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," he confided. There was also a chance he could become Army chief, he said, but his political and policy experience in Weinberger's office and the White House probably made him more qualified to be Chairman.
Duberstein made sure the fourth-star promotion, necessary before Powell could take over Forces Command, went through without delay.
Powell went to see Bush, thanked him for the offers, and said he wanted to move on. "Out with the old and in with the new," Powell said. He knew the rules. The new President picked his own team.
The President-elect accepted his decision without argument.
Powell also told Reagan that he planned to become commander-in-chief of Forces Command.
"That is a promotion, isn't it?" Reagan asked.
Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft received a call on November 23, 1988, the day before Thanksgiving, from his close friend R. James Woolsey, Jr., a lawyer and former Undersecretary of the Navy. Woolsey had seen a recent editorial in The New York Times suggesting that Bush select Scowcroft for Secretary of Defense.
"It isn't going to happen," Scowcroft said.
Within an hour, Woolsey heard on the radio that Bush had just made the surprise announcement that Scowcroft would be his national security adviser, replacing Powell.
Woolsey laughed to himself. Scowcroft was certainly discreet, perhaps to a fault. Although they had worked together over the years on top-secret government studies, in addition to numerous articles and proposals on arms control and defense policy, Scowcroft wasn't even going to hint to Woolsey a secret the President-elect wanted kept.
A model of the trustworthy, self-effacing staffer, Brent Scowcroft had been a low-profile presence in top national security circles for two decades. He'd started as Henry Kissinger's deputy national security adviser, moved up to the security adviser's post under President Ford (when Bush was CIA director) and then worked on various presidential commissions and as a highly paid international consultant at Kissinger Associates. He tended to stay in the background, as a mirror and implementer of the President's views.
A head shorter than Bush, balding and slight, the 63-year-old Scowcroft was a Mormon who avoided the Washington social scene, and had a priestlike dedication to his work. It was his one interest. Scowcroft's idea of recreation was attending a seminar on arms control, a subject he loved in all its obscure detail. He had once spent an hour and a half refereeing a debate over a single phrase proposed for a blue-ribbon commission report on strategic missiles. It was at such times, arguing policy issues he cared about--his voice rising almost to a screech and his arms waving--that he showed there was a passion beneath the pale exterior.
Scowcroft's confidants knew that in recent years there was one subject that had made him emotional. Although he'd had many close ties to the Reagan administration, in private he'd been a scathing critic of its foreign and military policy. He thought that under Reagan the United States had first taken a naive and foolish hard-line approach to the Soviet Union, and then had turned around and rushed blindly into Mikhail Gorbachev's arms.
He'd seen no coherent administration policy on nuclear deterrence, and had called Reagan's 1986 Reykjavik proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles "insane." To Scowcroft, the administration's vision of a shield in space to protect the United States against nuclear missile attack, the Strategic Defense Initiative, was a wild fantasy. He believed the Reagan national security team had failed to compensate for their boss's inadequacy and romanticism in the realm of foreign affairs.
Since Scowcroft's differences with the Reagan line were
well known, his return to the White House as national
security adviser was a clear signal that Bush intended to cut
a new path in defense and foreign policy.
Excerpted from The Commanders by Bob Woodward Copyright © 1991 by Bob Woodward. Excerpted by permission.
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