A few windows have opened in his first two weeks at the helm, allowing foreign and civil service employees at the State Department, a few foreign ministers, and several ambassadors from Washington's diplomatic corps to catch a glimpse of his style and hear a bit of what he intends to do in several areas affecting policy.
Powell is disarmingly charming and engaging, whether meeting with a thousand employees in an auditorium setting or a dozen reporters in the State Department press room. The secretary can be direct and blunt in answering a question or he can deflect a specific probe with ease.
Talking to the rank and file who run the department, Powell gave them a bit of a pep talk, told them he would fight for more resources for the department, told a few stories about the importance of globalization and the Internet and even offered his opinion on the best Internet reference site (www.refdesk.com). Then the new boss took questions as he walked around the podium, acting more like a talk show host than the nation's top diplomat.
Powell said he'll be "bouncing into offices, talking to desk officers" and emphasized his "open, collegial" leadership style. Then he added, "but don't mistake it. I'm still a general...if you perform well, you'll be fine. If you don't, you'll be doing pushups." His new "troops" loved it.
This so-called town hall meeting for employees was televised to U.S. embassies abroad and Powell, who soon will be traveling to many of these posts, also had a message for them: "I'm an easy visitor," said Powell, "I like cheeseburgers....I like Holiday Inns." More smiles and laughter from the audience, and almost no one believes the secretary of state will be dining on burgers or staying at Holiday Inns when he visits London, Tokyo or Moscow.
In a separate session with reporters who cover the diplomatic ins and outs on a daily basis, Powell said he'd be happy to talk on the record about anything. "You can pick any question you want but I pick the answer," said Powell, to the laughter that greeted his response.
On a more serious note, Powell said that in speaking for the State Department and the Bush administration, "I'm helping convey a message through you to the American people." Doing that, he said, was an "obligation."
Powell is an experienced and effective public speaker, but to emphasize to the dozen or so journalists just how serious he was, he adapted a phrase that sounded as if he had used it many times when talking to army troops under his command: "I'm not blowing in your ear, I want to help you do your job."
The day-to-day work of diplomats has also gotten under way in these first two weeks. Powell has seen foreign ministers from Canada, Mexico, and Japan as well as ambassadors from China & Israel. The ew president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, dropped by, as did the president of Rwanda and the prime minister of Serbia. In between these and other meetings there were phone calls from Israeli Prime Minister Barak, Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The opening phase of his tenure has been smooth for Powell, in part because of the respect he commands and because of the absence of any real crisis. But it's only the first two weeks.
Powell's predecessor, Madeleine Albright, told him that being Secretary of State "was the best job in the world but it's harder than it looks." Powell is smart enough and has been around Washington long enough to know the real tests lie ahead.
By Charles Wolfson
©MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc., All Rights Reserved