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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.