General Colin Powell’s decision not to run for president seems to have suffused our politics with a sense of loss whose presence is palpable and yet whose origins are rather a mystery. Our mourning cannot be for the loss of a candidacy with that realistic a chance for the Republican nomination, not so much because Powell is a man of color as because he would have joined the race after too many of the Republicans able to help his cause with the powers of office or of purse had already pledged them to another candidate.
Neither have we lost a chance for the company of heroism, since Powell is too well aware of what that word means to impute its qualities to a career that owed most of its ascension to his managerial talents and the requisite acumen for getting ahead in the military service that is our last effectively functioning political machine.
Powell would, no doubt, have been a splendid combat officer if his times had demanded it, but they seldom did, and those of us who admire Powell ought not to polish his martial glories to a sheen any higher than the modest glow he himself prefers to assign them.
What we have lost instead is no less consequential for being rather simple. For there departs with him every promise of elegance in a campaign otherwise bent upon being no better than the tawdry wallow of men made ever more ungainly by desperation. We yearn for Powell’s elegance most achingly because we so miss it in the air he has vacated.
Every canon in the myth that we are a classless society is a falsehood, with the solitary exception of our tender of universal opportunity to ambitions for gentility. We have never offered every child humbly born an equal chance to grow rich—or, lately, to make a decent living—but we have, at least, allowed every lass to become a lady and every lad a gentleman.
A gentleman does not abase himself or crawl or cry in public. President Bill Clinton’s eyes well up at card tricks and he never travels except to crawl wherever he lands. Senator Bob Dole used to show some potential for gentility until, after frequently visiting his wicked tongue upon Richard Nixon in life, he wept over Nixon’s casket, and he has since sunk further from crying in public to crawling in public for the Reverend Pat Robertson and others in the politics-as-religion dodge. The last gentleman departs with Powell, and we must rummage among those who have willed themselves into loutishness.
Only those unaware of the complexities of the great river of African-American history could imagine a Powell who had acquired his genteel traits instead of being born to them as he was. He drew his first breath in one of those West Indian households that, whether in comfort or deprivation, are Anglican, aristocratic, and sometimes prone to hauteur.
As he grew up, Powell stayed true to his aristocratic heritage, shook off his hauteur, and entered the world in full possession of the democratic bearing that is the last stage and ultimate refinement in the process of producing the perfect gentleman.
He could not have made the distinction clearer than with the subtle changes he ran in his envoi for the time being. He declined, as a gentleman must, to drag up personal intimacies to explain his decision. He with-held his interior feelings from anyone’s inspection but his own. Put him a question and he would answer “yes” or “no,” and close the matter without one lurch into the wriggles around the “whys” that our politicians so generally stoop to indulging as their duty to the nation’s future and their own.
Such is the elegance that we had all but forgotten, and we had hardly known how acutely we had missed it. When it is resurrected only to tell us that it can’t stick around, we miss it even more. We are sick for the home we used to have, and now we know that it will be too long a while before we can hope to see it again.
December 21, 1995