It was the wildfire rumor of last week: reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, have told the White House that they will not return to their positions, even if President Bush is elected to a second term. Powell has called the reports "gossip." But I think they're the most titillating political rumors I've heard all year.
If Powell leaves, Bush will lose the most popular member of his administration, certainly more enduringly popular than Bush is himself.
Powell's "gossip" remark came after a Washington Post story reported that Powell intends to fulfill a personal (and spousal) commitment to leave after one term.
Inevitably, the punditocracy are talking about the policy differences between Powell and other key Bush officials over the war in Iraq and the handling of other troubles around the world. Some guess Powell has had one too many public embarrassments, that he feels he has lost credibility because no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq.
Some wonder whether he feels misled after his much-heralded speech before the United Nations asserting that Iraq was an imminent threat to America and that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was linked to the Sept. 11 terrorists.
Average citizens are talking, too. If Powell leaves, what of this world we've gotten ourselves into? What of future acts of terrorism? What about Iraq, where almost daily attacks continue to bring death or injury to civilian contractors and members of the all-volunteer army?
Powell is a moderate whose approach to foreign policy stresses collaboration and diplomacy -- as opposed to the style of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other hawks in the Bush administration who favor unilateralism.
The two sides have been at odds since Bush took office, and it would appear that -- at least before this week's reports of Powell's departure -- that the hawks were winning and in control.
But now, with these rumors, things aren't so good for them -- or for the Bush administration, especially now, fewer than 18 months before the president's term is over. And that may be why Bush, who is on retreat in Texas -- call it a working vacation -- has invited Powell and Armitage to Texas for talks.
There's a lot to like about Powell. He has a lot of things no one else in the administration has. He is, after all, a retired combat veteran, a four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Here's what seems clear to me. Powell has a foreign-policy constituency, although maybe not in the president's office. His biggest foreign-policy fans include many smart people in intelligence and the military who do not buy -- or consider good for this country -- the Rumsfeld hawks' approach to world dominance/empire-building/neocolonialism. They think it's bad for America in either the short run or the long.
It was Powell, I am told, who persuaded the president to go to Africa and pledge that much-publicized $15 billion to help in the battle against the HIV/AIDS pandemic that has wracked the continent. (That money doesn't exist yet, by the way -- it's just a twinkle in Congress' eyes -- but at least Powell got the president to Africa.)
Powell also has a constituency for his domestic agenda. He has made it clear that, unlike Bush, he supports affirmative action. Along with most Republicans, President Bush is against it and supported briefs against the University of Michigan affirmative-action plans in the recent Supreme Court case. I'll bet Powell worked behind the scenes to get those 30 retired military officers, including admirals and generals, to file briefs in support of the university.
Powell has achieved in everything he has done. Yet, like many before him, Powell has faced the challenges of being black and trying to make a difference in a predominantly white power culture.
If he stays, he'll continue to make that difference. If he goes, the Bush administration loses one of its best assets.
Acel Moore is associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.