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The General's Next Campaign

Colin Powell finds a cause worthy of his star power--calling America to volunteer

By Margaret Carlson

(TIME, March 17) -- Presidents are expected to do good works at the end of their term, except perhaps for Gerald Ford, whose wife does that for him while he plays celebrity golf. But General Colin Powell is going through the process in reverse. Having postponed running for President, he is channeling his immense popularity into promoting volunteerism. He will serve as general chairman of the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, which kicks off with an Olympian opening ceremony in Philadelphia on April 27. Joining him on the steps of Independence Hall will be co-chairmen Bill Clinton and George Bush. (Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford will also appear during the three-day event.)

It's hard to think of a better use of celebrity than inspiring the rest of us to get off our collective duff. But the project is not without some risk. We all know what the road to hell is paved with. And Powell's crusade could be seen as giving succor to Republicans who would like to leave it to volunteers to reweave the tattered safety net. "Nonsense," he says. "This is no replacement for government help. We're partners." Waving toward the capital skyline outside the window of his suburban office, he adds, "It's hard to shred the politics out of things in this wonderful town of ours. But this is not a bipartisan effort; it's nonpartisan."

Powell wasn't an easy hire. Since his decision not to run, a lot of people have wondered what it would take to get the general out of semiretirement, off the phone (he is a well-known phone and fax abuser) and away from the mail (he answers every letter). Even his wife Alma was thinking he ought to get out of the basement more. He had a stack of offers from corporate boards, foundations and academia that if laid end to end would circle the Pentagon and make the Republican who actually did run weep. Then Ray Chambers, a philanthropist who has devoted the past decade to salvaging kids in Newark, New Jersey, asked Powell to look at an idea, first proposed by Governor George Romney before his death in 1995, to convene a national, star-studded event to promote volunteerism.

Powell says the project "fit with my priorities," but he didn't want to be involved in a fuzzy-headed launch of a feel-good balloon that would simply drift away. "I said no to offers to chair studies, to sit on boards to examine the cities. I wanted concrete goals, a focus on kids, deliverable results and a way to continue beyond the summit." Convinced that Chambers and the other organizers wanted those things as well, he agreed to join Clinton and Bush at a White House ceremony on Jan. 24 to announce the summit.

Powell (a board member of the United Negro College Fund, Howard University, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.) is actually Powell Inc., which he runs from his house in McLean, Virginia, and a boxy little office nearby that's decorated with Army memorabilia, a print of Teddy Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill and a collection of gimme coffee mugs. His day job is to give speeches for big fees, but he is spending 30% of his time now on the summit and expects that to grow.

Powell has merged his vocation with his avocation: wherever he's invited to speak, he gives second or third speeches to local community groups. In Scottsdale, Arizona, at a Boys and Girls Club, the kids had questions for him. What size shoe does he wear (12EE), and would he do the Macarena with them? Even if it weren't the official dance of the Democratic Party, Powell, as a notoriously bad dancer would have been reluctant. He noted there was no music, but the children made some, and he gamely flailed his arms.

For Powell, the challenge isn't to attract offers--he gets a plastic Postal Service bin full of letters each day. The challenge is to separate the ideas that will work from other well-meaning but impractical ones. For instance, he likes American Express's summer program that pays teachers to train students in the travel-agency business. "I asked them to double it to 5,000 kids." He realized during his book tour that remaindered books get destroyed. "I told Harry Evans [his publisher at Random House] to figure a way to get these books to kids." He pulls out a letter from Herman Cain, the head of Godfather's Pizza and the National Restaurant Association, offering to persuade 33,000 restaurants to start school-to-work and welfare-to-work programs. Although some organizers worry about follow-through on these hundreds of commitments, Powell does not. "If I have Herman, I trust Herman."

While Powell has a staff of only four, the third floor of his office building is teeming with summiteers. "It's getting wild around here, and I say that as someone who went through the Persian Gulf War," says Colonel Bill Smullen, Powell's top aide. With just two months to pull off a splashy national event, Powell conducts short, ruthlessly efficient meetings. Former Reaganaut Michael Deaver, a P.R. consultant, says, "You might think something is going to breeze through, but nothing gets by unchallenged. He hates to waste time; he makes decisions easily. He is absolutely in charge."

But even in the leanest machine, it's hard to avoid such accoutrements of the '90s as logo-design consultants, glossy blue press packets and focus groups that mall-test key words to see which ones grab people's attention. Deaver's P.R. firm, Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, is billing its services at a 20% discount; Deaver is donating his. Powell is not going to put up with the kind of waste made notorious by charity balls and the United Way scandal, in which money was spent to raise more money and lavished on salary and perks. The two founding partners, the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National Service, were already going concerns without a lot of fluff or overhead. Powell takes no salary.

Before the launch of the project, Powell has already made volunteerism safe for Real Men, rescuing it from its second-class status as women's work. And his timing is impeccable. As politics declines ever further, he has taken on the task of revitalizing civic life, which if successful will only raise the clamor for him to salvage politics as well. Perhaps the odor will get so bad that the presidency will be virtually handed to him, a four-star general of his own all-volunteer army.

Stepping Right Up

The goal of the Partnership for America's Future is to generate significant new commitments to public service from all sectors--public, private and non-profit. Here are some examples of pledges received so far.

LensCrafters will provide 1 million needy people, especially children, with free vision care

Kimberly-Clark pledges $2 million to support community playgrounds built by its employees and neighborhood volunteers in 30 cities

Texas state comptroller's office will match 1,000 families on public assistance with a team of volunteers who will help them get off welfare by 1999

IBM in partnership with United Way of America and AmeriCorps *VISTA will help small local not-for-proffit organizations get up-to-date technology

American Association of Museums will provide safe places for children to learn and grow through special programs in museums and in schools

AT&T has committed $150 milllion to connect the country's 110,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools to the Internet

N.F.L. Players Association is launching a pro-athlete mentoring program for Native American teens

KPMG Peat Marwick will invest 160,000 hours and $20 million in 1,000 communities to paint classrooms, renovate playgrounds and tutor children

Columbia/HCA Healthcare will immunize 1 million children by 2000

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