If there’s one thing I hate, it’s speculation about the next presidential race three and a half years before election day. But, with the nation in the midst of a chronic leadership vacuum, there’s no question that one man has already successfully positioned himself as a clear favorite.

I refer, of course, to Colin Powell, who is riding the crest of the volunteerism wave — a phenomenon he no doubt believes will maintain his popularity with Democrats and Republicans alike.

Gen. Powell is a likable guy. He has a special appeal. He’s the kind of person you want to believe. You want to think the best of him. He looks great. He sounds great. And who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be part of electing the first black president of the United States?

The trouble with all that is the more you learn about Colin Powell, the more you realize just how dangerous he really is. He has more demagogue potential than even Bill Clinton. And the last thing America will need in the year 2000 is another leader who believes in little more than his own quest for pure political power.

There was a priceless moment during the endless television coverage of the volunteerism hoopla a week ago when a reporter actually asked Powell, the chauffeur-driven, self-appointed CEO of volunteerism incorporated, a question about how his idealism would actually play out in the real world. I can’t remember the specifics of the question, but it’s not really important. The key is the elitist way he answered.

“I can’t be bothered with that. I’ll leave those details to the governors and the state legislatures to figure out,” he said.

Now, let me get this straight. Here’s a man who has never been elected to anything in his life, dismissing the practical, real-world consequences of his actions as too trivial to bother with. He’s above all that nonsense. Leave it to the politicians to figure out, he scoffs. This worries me. Just who does he think he is?

Then there are the troubling remarks he made recently to gonzo newsman Marc P. Morano last week during a reception in Washington.

He claimed the volunteerism effort was needed, in part, because of “right-wing budget cuts” that have hurt the poor and inner cities. He sounded more like Hillary Clinton than Ronald Reagan, saying, all he was concerned with are “the kids.”

Powell also said racial preferences are still the best way to help black Americans and other minorities, adding, “The Declaration of Independence did not mean a thing to blacks.” The “legacy of slavery,” he said, mandates the continuation of racial preferences “probably for another generation and a half.” He also defended the Great Society as a historically necessary event.

He insists blacks still need government help — and preferences — to succeed. He defended racial set-asides for universities and criticized Proposition 209 in California against affirmative action.

“I hope the Founding Fathers will be looking down on Independence Hall with pride this week as our presidents, their first ladies, our governors and thousands of our fellow citizens gather to begin this crusade of giving, sharing and caring for the American family,” Powell said last week.

Compulsory volunteerism? Do you think Thomas Jefferson would be proud of that concept? Official racial preferences? How would James Madison view that one?

I think the founders would be more proud if Colin Powell began his “mentoring” campaign by teaching the important principles of the Declaration of Independence rather than dismissing them as not important to blacks.

It’s early, but we better start looking for a presidential candidate that stands for something more than pandering.

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