12/25/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
For months he had looked ready to turn a page of American political history. Pondering a run for the White House, Colin Powell loomed not merely as the first black presidential candidate to be a viable contender but perhaps the front-runner. The enthusiastic throngs that he drew on a fall tour for his autobiography, My American Journey, only heightened the sense of anticipation and destiny. Suddenly his no-sweat pragmatism—featuring a popular blend of fiscal conservatism and social conscience—seemed like the answer to everything from the budget battle to the open wound of race relations. But first there would be the long exhausting slog of the presidential campaign. And that was one challenge that Powell had only limited desire to take on. "You've really got to want it," he told PEOPLE recently. "You've got to have the fire to do it."
Ultimately he concluded that the sparks he was generating around the country had failed to set his own soul afire, which is why on Nov. 8 he announced he would not be entering the race. To his crestfallen supporters it was as if Powell had canceled his reservations on Air Force One. His family, especially wife Alma, had weighed in with their concerns about him running, fearing that their privacy would be invaded and his safety would be jeopardized. But observers say Powell never directly asked his wife for a yea or nay vote—and she never tried to exercise any veto power. "It wasn't all family," says Powell. "I didn't think it was the right thing for me to do at this time."
That display of caution only seemed to endear Powell to voters even more. No sooner was he out of the race than pundits pointed out that Powell, now 58, would still be well-placed for a run in the year 2000. For now he will have to be content with giving speeches (at roughly $60,000 a pop) rather than worrying about the hurdles of a campaign, like fundraising and mudslinging. If he had any regrets about bowing out, he didn't let on. Indeed, at recent speeches he began telling an anecdote that was as revealing as it was self-deprecating. He reminded listeners that a few months ago, a British journalist had claimed to have discovered that he, the son of Jamaican immigrants, was directly related to Queen Elizabeth II (don't ask). Pausing to let the laughter die down, he would crack, "Forget the presidency, I want to be King!"